Vancouver — Five people died after a whale watching boat with 27 people on board sank off Vancouver Island on Sunday and one person remained missing, Canadian authorities said.
The vessel made a mayday call late Sunday afternoon on what was a calm, clear and sunny day off the tourist community of Tofino, a popular destination for whale watchers on Canada's West Coast, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said.
Lt.-Cmdr Desmond James, a spokesman for the rescue agency staffed by Canadian military and Coast Guard personnel, said late Sunday that the agency's search concluded with five people dead, 21 rescued and one person missing. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police will take over the search for the person who remains missing.
"As of right now the case has been turned over to the RCMP and it's a missing person file," he said. "Fortunately, we did manage to rescue 21 people."
The boat, the 20-meter Leviathan II, was partially submerged 12 nautical kilometers west of Tofino.
Tofino's mayor described the town's mood as tense but commended residents for their quick aid in the rescue effort.
"Everybody's heart is just breaking for what's going on here and wanting to be as helpful as possible," Josie Osborne said in a telephone interview late Sunday.
Coast Guard vessels and search and rescue aircraft had searched into the night for survivors.
Boats from the nearby Ahoushat First Nation arrived first on the scene, said aboriginal Councilor Tom Campbell. He was on the waterfront and watched as rescuers brought several survivors ashore.
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"Their looks tell the whole story," he said by phone from Tofino. "You can't describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost."
John Forde, who runs The Whale Centre, another whale watching operation, responded to the call for help and was told the search was for four or five missing people.
The ship that went down was operated by Jamie's Whaling Station, Forde said. He said he had no idea how it could've sunk.
"Over the course of a season and years we take out thousands and thousands of people on these trips in conditions similar today," Forde said. "I have no idea what the issue was or what actually happened."
Forde said Jamie's Whaling Station was one of the first of its kind off Vancouver Island and had been around for many years.
Tofino fishing guide Lance Desilets said at least 12 rescue boats were already out on the water when he arrived on the scene after responding to the call for help.
"I saw a lot of personal belongings, a long diesel slick and the top 10 feet of the Leviathan II sticking out of the water," Desilets said. "It's a sad day for our community."
It wasn't the first fatality on the whale watching company's record. In 1998 one of its vessels capsized during an excursion, sending all four people on board into the water. The operator and a passenger died.
On Sunday, five ambulances were dispatched and several off-duty paramedics went to the dock to help, said Jenn Hamilton, a spokeswoman for British Columbia Emergency Health Services.
Many of the survivors were taken to Tofino General Hospital and some were already discharged Sunday night, said Valerie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Canada's Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the boat's sinking.
Joe Martin, a member of the Tal-o-qui-aht tribe, was near the dock when rescue boats went out.
The ship was on the far side of Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound, an area that Martin said can get really rough, but was not on Sunday.
"It wasn't even blowing hard," he said. "This is the largest boat in Tofino and I was really surprised that it went down."