The three men were fishing for halibut off the west coast of Vancouver Island when the Leviathan II radioed for help. But by the time Marcel Martin could pilot his boat to the foundering whale-watching vessel, it was too late to do more than drag bodies from the frigid water.
When Marcel, his father, Carl, and his cousin, Don Williams Jr., arrived to help, “they saw two bodies in the kelp, and they had to back the boat up in order to get them,” said Joe Martin, Marcel’s uncle. “Then another body surfaced, which they grabbed as well. They had a difficult time pulling them in. They were covered in diesel.”
The family belongs to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, and members of the tribe gathered Monday for a cleansing ceremony, to talk about the tragedy and deal with the trauma. Joe Martin said his brother and nephews were “shocked” by the accident. The two young men “have never had to deal with anything like this before,” he said.
The Leviathan II was carrying 27 people when it sank Sunday afternoon in clear weather about eight miles west of the Canadian surf town of Tofino. One woman and four men, all British nationals, died in the incident, a spokeswoman for the British Columbia Coroners Service said Monday. As investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada arrived, divers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police continued to search for one missing passenger.
A fatal incident while “whale watching is really unusual,” said Barbara McLintock of the coroners service. “The only other whale-watching death we can recall recently was in 1998, and the same company” was involved, she said.
Marc Andre Poisson, director of marine investigations for the safety board, told reporters Monday evening that the Leviathan II has been secured and that investigators plan to talk to the crew and passengers in coming days. A report on the cause of the accident could take months or more, he said.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed the nationality of the victims in a statement released early Monday and said he was saddened by the incident.
“My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident. Consular staff in British Columbia are supporting the family members of those who have died and we will remain in close contact with Canadian authorities as further information becomes available,” Hammond said.
Tofino, with about 1,900 people, is a well-known eco-tourist destination because of whales living off the island, part of British Columbia.
Members of the Ahousaht First Nation arrived shortly after the Leviathan II went down and were instrumental in rescuing the 21 passengers and crew members who were saved, said Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne. Most of the survivors were taken to area hospitals.
The Ahousaht “are very maritime-oriented,” she said. “They’ve lived on the ocean for thousands of years. They’re the most knowledgeable people about these waters, and they were the first on the scene.”
Osborne said about 30 vessels responded to the Leviathan II’s distress call.
“Unfortunately Tofino is no stranger to maritime incidents,” she said. “We have had cases where fishing or pleasure vessels have gone down and lives have been lost. But certainly nothing of this size has taken place before.”
The boat was operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station and Adventure Centers in Tofino. Owner Jamie Bray issued a statement early Monday saying his company is “doing everything we can to assist our passengers and staff through this difficult time.”
“It has been a tragic day,” he said in the post on the company website. “Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved.”
The other fatal whale-watching accident in the region also involved a boat owned by Jamie’s Whaling Station. In 1998, the Ocean Thunder was swamped during a trip out of Tofino, “throwing all occupants into the cold water,” according to the safety board’s official report.
One of the three passengers and the boat operator died in that incident. “A factor contributing to the occurrence was that the operator did not fully appreciate the conditions the boat would meet at the time of the accident in the turbulent waters in the vicinity of reefs,” the report says.
In a statement on Sunday’s incident, Canadian Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau thanked all those who participated in the rescue effort and offered his condolences to the Leviathan II’s victims and their families.
“I know firsthand of this coastal area’s natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world,” said Trudeau, who won Canada’s national elections last week.
LaGanga reported from Seattle and Parvini from Los Angeles.