A Canadian whale-watching tour boat with 27 passengers on board sank off the coast of British Columbia on Sunday, killing at least four people, rescue officials said.
A military rescue helicopter and plane were sent to the waters off the coast of Tofino after the vessel sent a distress signal around 5 p.m. local time, according to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC). Several other coast guard vessels were involved in the search.
“There were four people recovered without vital signs and the search continues for people still unaccounted for,” the spokesman said.
“It’s dark here now and obviously the priority is getting the people off the water safely.”
The JRCC said there were “fatalities and survivors.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, citing BC Ambulance, said four people were taken to hospital and five were being treated after being pulled from the water.
“We can confirm there are several survivors,” said a JRCC spokeswoman.
She said the search would continue, with military planes and coast guard vessels lighting up the area where the vessel remained partially submerged, 8 nautical miles northwest of Tofino.
The manager of the Shelter Restaurant said fishermen and fishing charter companies had joined the rescue effort, with about 15-20 boats leaving the tourist town.
“Practically anyone who can go will go,” said Matthew, who did not give his last name. “People here get together to help when things like this happen.”
Tofino, a community of roughly 2,000 people on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is a popular tourist destination for surfers, hikers and whale watchers from around the world.
“All our attention now is on our passengers and crew so we’ll be providing information as soon as the time is appropriate,” said a staff member with Jamie’s Whaling Station and Adventure Centres, which operated the vessel, the Leviathan II.
In 1998, a boat operated by the same company sank near Tofino, killing the ship’s captain and a German tourist.
John Forde, who works at another eco-adventure company, said passengers on a vessel like the Leviathan II, a three-deck 65-foot cruiser that can carry up to 46 people, would not have to wear life jackets. The boat, like ferries, would only be required to have life jackets on board.
“The sea was 3 to 4 metres, a fairly big sea, but not much wind or too unusual for the conditions we deal with on a regular basis out here,” Forde, who took part in the rescue for several hours, told Global television.
(Additional reporting by Nicole Mordant and Julie Gordon in Vancouver; Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Christian Plumb and Nick Macfie)