The sinking of a whale-watching boat off the coast of Vancouver Island Sunday should be a wake-up call for Canada’s marine safety regulation, safety expert Joseph Spears told Global News.
“We need a total reboot of all of this,” he said.
And, he argues, Canada needs stricter rules that don’t count on operators to self-report accidents that could precede bigger problems.
“Under the Canadian regulatory regime there’s an onus on operators to report incidents and what always concerns me is the near-misses,” Spears told Global News. “Unless you have rigorous enforcement and compliance and reporting, owners sort of shrug it off.”
At least five people died when the MV Leviathan II, owned by Tofino-based Jamie’s Whaling Station, capsized near Plovers Reef, just west of Tofino. One remained missing late Monday afternoon.
The other 21 people who were on board before the boat capsized were pulled from the water by fishermen from the Ahousaht First Nation and other local volunteers.
We don’t know what made the boat capsize. Sunday’s weather was unremarkable, although Spears notes there was “maximum tidal flow happening and some strong winds.
“It seems that whatever happened, happened very quickly.”
The RCMP and Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
They’ll have to inspect the wreck’s hull and interview survivors and everyone who’s been in contact with the vessel to piece together what went wrong.
A spokesperson for Jamie’s Whaling Station said the company is working closely with the Transport Safety Board to “assist with the investigation in any way we can.”
Corene Inouye, director of operations for Jamie’s Whaling Station, told reporters at a press conference Monday afternoon the vessel’s crew was well experienced.
“The skipper of the MV Leviathan II has over 20 years whale watching experience in these waters and 18 years with our company. The other two crew have five years and three years experience. All are licenced by Transport Canada and go through rigorous training, as well as bi-weekly safety drills and exercises.”
The stretch of water along Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail from Tofino south to Victoria is known historically as a shipwreck hot-spot thanks to the area’s unpredictable conditions. But, the company said the MV Leviathan II had traversed those waters plenty of times before.
“This particular boat has done this exact same trip for 20 years, twice a day,” said Jamie Bray, owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station. “Yesterday was no different than any other day.”
Spears says this should be an impetus for stricter regulation of the whale-watching industry, which generates millions of dollars for the provincial economy and attracts visitors from around the world.
Among other things, Spears said, it may be necessary for whale-watching passengers to wear full-body survival suits when they’re out on deck in areas where the sea conditions could change abruptly.
“Maybe when you go in against the rocks, you know, in shoal water on a late day without the Coast Guard being on patrol, maybe you should have survival suits on because there’s a bit of a risk,” he said.
When worn correctly, these coverall personal flotation devices not only keep someone afloat but also protect the body against frigid temperatures typical of the waters off Tofino.
These are required for passengers on inflatable zodiac boats but not on vessels like the Leviathan II, built as a fishing boat in 1980 but rebuilt in 1996, according to Transport Canada.
Bray said the Leviathan II had approximately 50 adult life jackets and about 20 for children, but passengers weren’t required to wear them. But it’s unclear how many of the Leviathan II’s passengers may have put life jacket’s on before entering the water.
“Jackets aren’t worn. Transport Canada advises not to wear a life jacket on a vessel with enclosed compartments. In the event of a sinking, it would be very difficult to exit a vessel when you’re being held up onto the ceiling or the deck with a life jacket on.”
But this isn’t the first time there has been an incident involving a boat from Jamie’s Whaling Station.
Two people died when the Ocean Thunder, a zodiac, was swamped near Plovers Reef — the same area as Sunday’s accident. Bray said the circumstances surrounding that incident were different from Sunday’s accident.
In that incident, the three passengers and the operator were wearing coverall personal flotation device suits.
“Coverall PFD suits are designed to reduce thermal shock upon entry into cold water, delay the onset of hypothermia, provide acceptable flotation and minimize the risk of drowning,” the board said in its report on a 1998* incident that involved another vessel from Jamie’s Whaling Station.
The investigation found the operator of the vessel did not have his suit fully zipped. The passenger who died was wearing the suit proplerly but was not a swimmer and the report said panicked after being tossed into the 11.5 C water.
Coverall suits aren’t required on “certified passenger vessels,” but they’re supposed to be safer, Spears said.
“If you get onto BC Ferries, they’re not saying, ‘Get into your exposure suit.'”
But maybe whale-watching vessels aren’t as safe as they’re considered, he said.
“They thought they were getting on a well-certified, well-operated vessel. It sank. Five people are dead.”
*Please note: An earlier version of this post stated the previous deadly incident involving a vessel from Jamie’s Whaling Station occurred in 1996. It happened in 1998.