Leviathan II. (Transportation Safety Board)

Coroner urges mandatory life-jackets in report on Tofino whale-watching tragedy

Six people died after whale watching vessel capsized in 2015

The deaths of six passengers aboard a vessel that capsized off the western coast of Vancouver Island in 2015 have been ruled accidental.

The BC Coroners Service released a report Tuesday carrying that cause of death, as well as two recommendations for Transport Canada aimed at preventing tragedies similar to the one in which a huge wave struck a whale-watching boat carrying 24 passengers and three crew capsized near Tofino on Oct. 25, 2015.

Investigating coroner Courtney Cote recommended that the federal department require life-jackets to be worn on the outer decks of vessels larger than 15 gross tons and carrying more than 12 passengers, and that more vessels be required to carry emergency-position-indicating radio beacons.

“We know that the ocean can be unforgivable and constantly the unexpected is happening,” Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns said. “Unfortunately, we can never be fully prepared for every circumstance on the water. Even the best prepared people can have accidents on the water.”

Corene Inouye, general manager with Jamie’s Whaling Station, the owner of the tour boat that flipped, said the company has already gone beyond those recommendations.

Inouye said the company requires all passengers to wear inflatable life-jackets on the interior and exterior decks.

She said many people don’t like to wear foam life-jackets because they are uncomfortable, while passengers can only wear the “keyhole”-style life-jackets, which you slip over your head, outside, because of a fear people could get trapped if they were inside and their boat flipped.

“Transport Canada needs to see if inflating life-jackets can be approved (as mandatory),” said Inouye, for all commercial passenger vessels.

Sam Vanderwalk, who owns Salmon Eye Charters in Ucluelet, balked at the life-jacket requirement.

“We don’t get any surprise hurricanes, everything is pretty much normal for the most part,” he said. “It’s not a shock if winds come up.”

In its report last June, the Transportation Safety Board found that a huge wave struck the boat at the starboard quarter, causing it to “pivot uncontrollably.” Five British citizens and one Australian were lost.

The board found that Jamie’s Whaling Station had not set out guidelines to address “the potential formation of breaking waves.”

In a statement, Transport Canada said it strongly encourages people to wear a lifejacket or other personal flotation device when on or near the water, and that it will review the coroner’s recommendations.

Black Press Media has also reached out to the lawyer representing some of the survivors and family members of the victims.

– with files from Karly Blats

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