VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Five British nationals died when a whale watching boat with 27 people on board sank off Vancouver Island, the British Foreign Minister said Monday. One person was missing and the rest were rescued, some by members of the local aboriginal community who rushed to the scene.
The vessel made a mayday call late Sunday afternoon on a calm, clear and sunny day off the tourist community of Tofino, a popular destination for whale watchers, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said. The cause of the sinking remained a mystery.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement that the five killed were U.K. nationals. He said consular officials in British Columbia were supporting family members of those who died.
"My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident," Hammond said.
A search by the rescue agency staffed by Canadian military and Coast Guard personnel concluded late Sunday with 21 rescued and one person missing, said Lt.-Cmdr Desmond James, a spokesman for rescue agency. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police will take over the search for the missing person.
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. He said his cousin pulled at least eight people from the water onto a boat.
"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."
The boat, the 20-meter (65-foot) Leviathan II, was partially submerged 8 nautical miles (12 nautical kilometers) west of Tofino.
Canadian Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau thanked all those who participated in the rescue effort and offered his condolences to the victims and their families.
"I know firsthand of this coastal area's natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world," said Trudeau, who won Canada's national elections last week. "My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, the crew, and their families at this most difficult time. We will continue to offer them support in the days ahead."
Sheila Simpson said she was strolling on the dock with her husband when rescue boats roared up carrying people from the whale watching vessel.
"One didn't make it," said Simpson about a man whose body was covered by a blanket.
Simpson, who was in Tofino visiting a friend at the local hospital, said she tried to comfort some of the survivors as they stood on the dock awaiting transport to hospital or to their hotels.
"They were in absolute shock," said Simpson. "You could see it in their eyes."
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.
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 fatal accident 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.
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."
Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to fix the last name of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre to James instead of Craig. This story has also been corrected to attribute a comment to the mayor of Tofino, and not a rescue official.