‘A terrible nightmare’: B.C. man left a paraplegic after boat collides with humpback in Haida Gwaii
“This is a terrible nightmare… but this is my reality.”
It’s been 10 weeks since Mike Hamill’s life violently changed when his guided fishing boat collided with a humpback whale in Haida Gwaii. The accident left Hamill, a former B.C. wrestling, powerlifting and bodybuilding champion, a paraplegic.
Hamill, along with two friends, had just finished four days of fishing and were headed back to their lodge when the boat hit a humpback that was breaching just outside Naden Harbour on June 25.
“We were sitting facing the captain at the bow of the boat when there was this hard hit. A wham,” the 61-year-old Hamill explained.
“I went straight up and did a flip in the air, came down and ended up as part of the console of the boat.”
Hamill was immediately flown to Prince Rupert and then taken to Vancouver General Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), where following an 11 hour surgery, he stayed for five weeks.
While the fitness professional survived his injuries, his body was badly broken.
“My back was broken in three places. They had to open me up from behind and put a whole new chassis in my body. My spinal cord was crushed. I was an L2 [second lumber vertebra fracture] and categorized as a paraplegic.”
He has no feeling from his chest down and his body is still repairing. Along with damage to his spinal cord Hamill completely crushed his pelvis, broke both clavicles, both scapulae and all the ribs in his back.
“After two to three weeks I thought — and I think I was delusional — that I was just going to get up and walk out of there and I’d be fine. And see my friends again, and my dog, and everything would be good. And then I came to the realization that this isn’t going to be good.”
After stabilizing in the ICU, Hamill moved into VGH’s acute short-term stabilization program for another five weeks before eventually being admitted into G.F. Strong, which is B.C.’s largest rehabilitation hospital with specialized programs for brain and spinal cord injuries.
WATCH: Mike Hamill’s life of fitness and sport before tragic boat accident
Hamill, who began his lifelong dedication to the fitness industry in his teens and owns a gym and fitness supply company, knows the rehabilitation road will be a long one.
“I’m re-learning how to move, grab, go to the bathroom, get into bed… simple things for most people but for me, it now requires skill and help. It’s the things that we all take for granted,” Hamill said.
“And I’m learning how to steer my new lifeline, my wheelchair. My chair is pretty much my life now.”
Irony comes calling
The last time Hamill was in G.F. Strong was about 15 years ago when he was installing fitness equipment in the facility’s gyms for their rehabilitation programs. The irony that he’s now having to use those same machines is not lost on Hamill.
“I’ve supplied a lot of equipment over 20 years. It’s more than surreal to have to come and see it from this position.”
While Hamill has already persevered through cancer, he says this accident is the most severe thing that’s ever happened to him. He’s hopeful that his fitness level, years of training and the support of his friends will help push him on his journey.
And he has one friend who knows, perhaps a little more intimately than others, the challenge ahead.
“I started supporting Rick Hansen’s work with his Man in Motion World Tour and worked in multiple events for him. I even got to run part way on his tour into the Lower Mainland with Rick. We went from Princeton to Manning Park,” Hamill said of his good friend Hansen, who is a former Canadian Paralympic athlete, activist and well-known philanthropist for people with disabilities.
“He’s been a phenomenal guy in my corner [since the accident] and it’s kind of come full circle. Here I was trying to help his cause and now he’s helping mine.”
While Hamill is remaining positive, he says there are things he can’t help missing about his life before he was paralyzed.
“I’m missing my dog [Sammy] right now, he’s a big part of my life… just the thought of not having him around… it’s going to be tough to take care of him. I can give him love but just being able to walk him around the corner will be hard,” he said.
“I also love my home and I may have to give it up because it’s not close enough to things for me to get to. I live right on the river [in Tsawwassen] and I may have to move somewhere better for shopping and accessibility.”
But along with worrying about his future, Hamill is also concerned for other’s safety when it comes to boats travelling in areas with humpback whales. He doesn’t want what happened to him and his friend, who also suffered serious injuries in the accident, to happen to anyone else.
PHOTO GALLERY: Mike Hamill’s career and life has included being a celebrity trainer, getting a black belt in karate and winning championships in bodybuilding
Sharing the waters: Man versus whale
Hamill’s accident isn’t the only collision between a boat and humpback whale along B.C.’s coast.
In August, a dozen people on board a whale watching boat were left rattled, and their captain injured, after their vessel struck a humpback as it surfaced in the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The boat, which belonged to Prince of Whales Whale Watching, was travelling “at speed” near Race Rocks Ecological Reserve south of Victoria when the humpback came out of nowhere, according to operations manager Ben Duthie.
“The captain didn’t see it, the passengers didn’t see it,” he said.
The collision sent the boat’s bow airborne before it landed on its side.
Two passengers were hurt and sent to hospital, while the captain suffered an ankle sprain.
Coverage of whales on Globalnews.ca:
In another serious accident in March 2015, a 35-year-old Calgary woman died after a breaching grey whale crashed onto a tourist boat out on a snorkel in Mexico.
The Baja California Sur state prosecutor’s office said at the time that the collision with the whale was less than two kilometres from a Cabo San Lucas resort.
Firefighter commander Juan Carvajal Figueroa said Jen Karen was in a boat with other tourists returning to port around noon when the whale jumped from the water and landed on the boat, tossing her into the water.
Karren was transported by boat to a local hospital where she died of her injuries. At least two others were reportedly injured in the accident.
The Humpback Comeback
Humpbacks were non-existent off the south coast 20 years ago, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association’s (PWWA) former executive director Michael Harris. But the first humpback in half a century came back about 12 years ago and since then their numbers have been steadily growing.
“It’s a whole new ballgame. We’re getting new individuals every year that we’ve never catalogued before,” Harris told Global news.
The association said in 2016 that researchers believed there were more than 21,000 humpbacks in the eastern North Pacific, up from about 1,600 when whale hunting was banned in 1966.
With the increased number of new humpback whales comes an increased risk for accidents like Hamill’s.
“All boaters just need to take it slow,” Harris said.
“It’s a matter of taking it slow, knowing what to look for… up until recently skippers were looking for killer whales. Now you’ve got humpbacks. You’ve got big whales that will surface, that are unpredictable and are very large.”
Harris said humpback whales don’t have predictable travel patterns – they don’t group up and travel in a nice and easy-to-predict forward motion. They can pop up anywhere.
WATCH: Humpback whales, once on the verge of extinction off the BC coast, have made a spectacular comeback.
Essentially any vessel – whale watching boats, fishing boats, ships, tankers – are all sharing the water with a very large marine mammal that has not been seen in the area for a very long time.
Harris said the best thing people can do is slow down and not travel at 28 to 29 knots in an area where there are a lot of humpbacks.
In addition to humpbacks returning to the south coast, Harris said we’re also starting to get fin whales, which is the second-largest animal after the blue whale. The largest fin whales reportedly grow to almost 90 feet long and weigh nearly 74 tonnes.
“It’s hard for these large whales to get out of the way of fast boats,” Harris said.
The work ahead for Hamill
Life has changed abruptly for Hamill but he said he’s going to keep pushing forward.
“[Rick] Hansen told me, Mike every day is a new day. Push forward. Do your best. Be your best and never say never,” he said.
Hamill said he plans to soak up everything he can from people like Hansen and the staff at G.F. Strong.
“[G.F. Strong] wants you to be ready for the world, it’s a great place — it’s a lot of different stuff to learn but I’m going to do my best to try to get through it.”
~ with files from Neetu Garcha, Adam Frisk, Andrew Russell, Erika Tucker and Canadian Press