Whale-watching boat sinks after being holed by underwater debris

A whale-watching vessel with 34 people aboard struck a log or other underwater object and sank in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia.

The 45-foot Explorathor was at Campbell Bay, off Mayne Island in the Gulf Islands region, on July 23 when the debris caused catastrophic damage to its hull. All passengers and crew were immediately evacuated unharmed to a second whale-watching vessel.

The vessel is operated by Vancouver Whale Watch. Cedric Towers, owner of the company, said that it is still unknown what the vessel struck.

“At this point it is undetermined. It was an underwater object of some sort,” he said. “It holed the engine room and the jet room and compromised two sections of the vessel.”

With two sections of the hull taking on water, onboard pumps could not keep Explorathor afloat. One hour after the passengers had been evacuated, the vessel sank. The accident happened at about 0830, according to the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Victoria.

Explorathor “had called mayday and was sinking,” said 2nd Lt. Matthew Adam of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre. “It was fairly straightforward. One vessel was taking on water and the sister ship came and transferred the people over.”

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Ganges, Coast Guard auxiliary vessel Pender and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police boat were dispatched. “All the passengers were transferred to a company boat without incident,” Adam said. “The vessel sank and salvage vessels were en route.”

A companion vessel, Vancouver Whale Watch’s Explorathor Express, picked up the 32 passengers along with the skipper and deck hand. Vancouver Whale Watch, founded in 1998 and based in Richmond, B.C., operates tour boats offering passengers the opportunity to view orcas, Dall’s porpoises and sea lions in the Strait of Georgia area.

The 45-foot carvel/flush aluminum-hulled Explorathor was built by Recherches et Travaux Maritimes Constructions (RTMC) in Petite-Riviere Saint-Fancois, Quebec, in 1996. RTMC passenger vessels are derivative of rigid hull inflatable designs, though the Quebec company’s boats have no inflatable parts.

Explorathor was powered by two diesel engines and RTMC’s Alpha Power jet drive system and was capable of a top speed of 32 knots. The hull and deck are built with the Stronlite construction method using Fabrilite aluminum extrusions, minimizing the amount of weld required. The company says the end product results in less heat distortion and lighter weight in the hull.

The Vancouver salvage company Marine Assist International raised Explorathor, which is out of service.

“We recovered the vessel from 140 feet of water and everything was pretty well imploded,” Towers said. “The vessel has been declared a total constructive loss.”

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investing the incident.

Michel Drouin

By Professional Mariner Staff