Canadian authorities have determined that a “large breaking wave” caused a whale-watching boat to capsize in 2015 off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, killing six people.
There were 24 passengers and three crew on the 65-foot Leviathan II when it rolled over at about 1500 on Oct. 25, 2015, in Clayoquot Sound near Tofino, B.C. Crew could not send a distress message and 45 minutes passed before rescue agencies learned about the accident.
Leviathan II did not carry an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and was not required to carry one. Since the accident, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has urged Transport Canada to require the devices on all commercial vessels operating in open water. It also has recommended other regulatory changes to improve safety on commercial vessels.
“It’s time for Transport Canada to work with whale-watching companies and other passenger vessel operators to ensure the experience they offer is not just thrilling, but as safe as it can be,” Kathy Fox, chairwoman of the TSB, said in a prepared statement in June accompanying the release of the accident report. “When people find themselves in cold water, every second counts.”
“Our recommendations,” she continued, “are aimed at putting in place measures to avoid accidents in the first place, and to expedite rescue efforts if an accident occurs.”
Leviathan II left Tofino at 1330 for its first whale-watching voyage of the day. Crew reviewed available weather data, which predicted 15- to 25-knot winds and waves between 6 and 9 feet. The vessel encountered roughly 7-foot seas around Plover Reefs, where it stopped to allow viewing of a sea lion colony.
“As the vessel was departing toward the north side of the reef, the master and one deck hand heard a noise and looked aft, at which time they saw a large breaking wave bearing down on the vessel’s starboard quarter,” the TSB report said. “The top of the wave was reported to be above the flying bridge.”
The diagram below shows their approximate location as the accident occurred, with the positions of the master and deck hands indicated with M, DH 1 and DH 2.
The captain attempted an abrupt turn to port, which would have positioned the stern to the wave, but he didn’t have time to complete the maneuver. The vessel rolled with the wave, throwing passengers and crew into the frigid water without life jackets.
During the next 45 minutes, passengers faced harrowing conditions. According to the report, some people were submerged underwater for a minute. Many choked on seawater and struggled to breathe, while clothes and footwear made swimming difficult. Passengers also were exposed to oil and fuels that escaped from the capsized boat.
After the boat rolled over, the captain and a deck hand were initially stuck in the flying bridge, and passengers in a lower compartment tried breaking a window to escape. They later escaped through a wheelhouse door as the boat filled with water.
Several passengers and crew took refuge in a life raft while others clung to flotation devices and other objects in the water. Roughly 20 minutes after the sinking, a deck hand spotted a rocket flare floating in the water and fired it skyward. Nearby fishermen saw the flare and approached Leviathan II’s position. The fishermen reported the accident and pulled survivors from the water.
The Canadian Coast Guard and other agencies launched a massive air and water search and rescue. Twenty-one people survived, although four people suffered serious injuries. Passengers also had hypothermia “ranging from minor to severe,” according to the report. The bodies of five victims were recovered shortly after the accident. The sixth was found about three weeks later.
The wave that struck Leviathan II is known as a breaking wave, and they are not uncommon in the waters around Plover Reefs. These waves can occur when deepwater swells approach shallower water, creating taller waves spaced closer together. The waves eventually pitch forward and break.
“When Leviathan II arrived at Plover Reefs to view the sea lions, several conditions supporting the formation of breaking waves were present: The swell was coming from the southeast, traveling over the rising ocean floor, and meeting an opposing tide as it approached the rocks,” investigators said in the report.
“Based on the conditions at the time, the master deemed it safe to operate the vessel on the weather side of the reef, and during these operations, the vessel took on a position and heading that exposed the vessel’s starboard quarter to the incoming waves,” the report continued.
This illustration from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada shows how the wave likely approached Leviathan II and capsized it.
Hazardous waves have been blamed for two other fatal accidents around Vancouver Island since 1992, causing 14 deaths, including those on Leviathan II.
Jamie’s Whaling Station, which has locations in Tofino and Ucluelet, B.C., operated Leviathan II. Since the accident, the company has installed EPIRBs on its excursion vessels. It installed additional flotation devices and made them more accessible during capsizing, the TSB said. Passengers also are required to wear personal flotation devices.
“Since the accident, we have been working with the industry to continue improving safety,” company owner Jamie Bray said in a video statement. “We have put more lifesaving equipment on all our ships and continue to do extensive training with our crews and incorporate all that we have been able to learn from this tragic accident.”
The TSB is pushing for broader safety improvements across the industry. It wants Transport Canada to require EPIRBs or similar devices on commercial vessels that operate in open water that can automatically alert rescue agencies during an emergency.
The agency also believes excursion companies operating off Vancouver Island’s west side should be required to identify where and under what conditions hazardous waves can form. The agency wants these companies to establish “risk mitigation” strategies to prevent their vessels from encountering dangerous waves.
It also recommends that Transport Canada require passenger vessel operators across the country to adopt risk management strategies relevant to their area of operations.
In an emailed statement, Transport Canada said it was reviewing the TSB report and its recommendations and would respond within the required 90 days.