Column: Boating tragedy a reminder of nature’s power

For all the survivors, the traumatic experience is a life changer.

It was a day like so many others. A choppy sea. Clear skies. Excited tourists focused on the hopeful sight of barking sea lions, bobbing seals, sea otters, orcas, grey whales, and marine birds. The day was beautiful, the scenery exquisite, the anticipation palpable as the Leviathan II, a twenty metre vessel with open and closed decks owned by Jamie’s Whaling Station, left the dock in Tofino with 27 passengers and crew on board last Sunday. They were heading for Vargas Island and the rocky islets known popularly as Sea Lion Rocks.

As everyone soaked in the sights and sounds and the scent of sea spray, no one had any inkling this would be the whale watching boat’s final voyage.

In an instant, disaster. It hit so fast, so furious, there was no time for a mayday, no time for radio contact. Just an emergency flare. The maritime signal for distress.

Days later, some survivors would say a wave hit them, instantly rolling the boat on its side, tumbling it, and tossing passengers into the sea.

The flare was spotted by Clarence Smith and his deckhand Ken Brown, two Ahousaht First Nation residents fishing for halibut further east and close to Flores Island. Checking their radio, they expected to hear an emergency call. Nothing. Making a distress call to alert other boat operators on the water, they raced to the site of the flare to be confronted with the absolute worst of disasters.

The Leviathan had capsized with just its bow sticking out of the water. People were screaming and thrashing in the water. The men would ultimately pull 13 people to safety. And they would deal with the grim task of retrieving those who had died.

In no time the site was a flotilla of rescue boats – local water taxi companies, more Ahousaht boaters, private vessels and Canadian Coast Guard. In Tofino, residents turned out en masse to care for 21 people brought to shore and opened their homes to provide warmth and comfort while the injured were transferred to hospitals. In the final tally, five people, all British nationals, died and one, an Australian, currently remains missing.

It will be months before the Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation into what happened. But for all the survivors, the traumatic experience is a life changer.

The wave theory may prove to be at least partly accurate but everything hinges on the outcome of the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. Marc-Andre Poisson, the director of marine safety inspections, confirmed that a wave did in fact hit the boat from the starboard side but he cautioned that other factors may also have contributed to the disaster.

At the time, he said, most passengers were on the upper deck and had gathered on the port side. This would have raised the boat’s centre of gravity, affecting stability. With the force of the wave, the vessel broached, then capsized.

Marine wildlife viewing is an immensely popular billion-dollar tourist industry. But every time a boat leaves the dock, they venture into an alien environment with its own rules.

“Mother Nature’s the biggest misery on the planet,” said Ucluelet fishing guide Ken Lewis. “When you’re outside your comfort zone, you’re at her mercy.”

Indeed.  The ocean is a harsh task master, forgiving of nothing. Currents collide, tides swirl, winds whip into squalls and waves can change from a calm swell to dangerous white-caps coming in swift succession. As much as the waters look calm and inviting, the ocean’s mood swings can be menacing. Fishermen and guides live with that knowledge every day.

As the TSB works conducts its investigation, a lot will undoubtedly be learned from this awful tragedy.

Just Posted

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country's crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of June 13

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

Madalyn Clempson, 18, of Chilliwack sings ‘Hiney Yamin Ba-im.’ She won the Intermediate Vocal Canadian Music award at the Performing Arts BC Virtual Provincial Festival. (YouTube)
Chilliwack youth bring home awards from provincial performing arts festival

Chilliwack’s 18-year-old Madalyn Clempson ‘a bit stunned’ to have won Intermediate Vocal Canadian Music

These three kittens, seen here on Thursday, June 10, 2021, are just some of many up for adoption at the Chilliwack SPCA. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Find Me My Furever Home – Three kittens at the Chilliwack SPCA

Kittens were in ‘rough shape’ when they came into the Chilliwack SPCA, now ready for adoption

Jacqueline Pearce and Jean-Pierre Antonio received the BC Historical Federation Best Article Award on Saturday for their story about translating haiku written in the Tashme internment camp.
Article chronicling haiku in Japanese internment camp near Hope wins award

Tashme Haiku Club’s work was preserved and recently translated, authors write

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Chilliwack family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

Most Read