Tofino, on the west coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, is one of Canada’s most sought-after destinations.
Tourists from around the world descend on the small community of just under 2,000 residents for surfing, hiking, fishing, and whale watching every year. Tofino is also surrounded by national and provincial parks including the Pacific Rim National Park preserve featuring Long Beach a popular year-round destination.
An estimated 430,000 cetacean-seekers visited B.C. in 2008, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, generating more than $113 million for local economies through direct and indirect contributions. Tourism is big business for the province of British Columbia generating $13.5 billion in revenues in 2012 for the province, according to 2013 B.C. Statistics, the most recent available.
The Torino-Ucluelet area is just one of many established whale-watching industries in the area.
But on Sunday tragedy struck when the whale-watching boat Leviathan II sank near Vargas Island, just west of Tofino, with 27 people on board. At least five people were killed. The search for one person who was still missing was called off Sunday night and the RCMP was handling it as a missing-person case.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement that the five killed were U.K. nationals. He said consular officials in British Columbia were supporting family members of those who died.
“My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident,” Hammond said.
James Bray, owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station, which operated the vessel, said in a statement he’s “heartbroken” by the incident.
“It has been a tragic day. Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved,” he said in a statement Monday.
“We are doing everything we can to assist our passengers and staff through this difficult time. We are cooperating with investigators to determine exactly what happened.”
But this isn’t the company’s first fatal accident: In 1998 a boat was swamped, leaving the operator and one passenger dead.
The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident.
WATCH ABOVE: Tofino mayor Josie Osborne discusses the community response to the tragedy.