One person is still missing and a further 21 were taken to hospital after the sinking of the Leviathan II, which happened in calm, sunny conditions on Sunday afternoon. A total of four people remained in hospital last night, two described as stable and two whose conditions were unknown.
Barbara McLintock from the British Columbia coroner’s office told The Scotsman that the victims, who ranged in age from 18 to 76, were four men and one woman. She said the group was made up of three tourists on holiday from “the southerly part” of England and two British nationals living in Canada – one from British Columbia and one from Ontario.
The vessel, operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station, issued a Mayday while sailing off the tourist community of Tofino, Vancouver Island – a popular destination for whale watchers – rescuers said.
Passing boats, water taxis and members of the local Ahousaht First Nations community helped pull survivors from the water.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “It is with deep sadness that I can confirm five British nationals have lost their lives when the whale watching boat they were on sank off Western Canada on Sunday.
“My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident. Consular staff in British Columbia are supporting the family members of those who have died and we will remain in close contact with Canadian authorities.”
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne admitted that it could be days or weeks before it is known what happened to the boat.
The tragedy is the second suffered by the company, which in 1998 lost the operator of boat Ocean Thunder and one passenger, who were killed when a large wave swamped the vessel and threw all five on board into the water.
Eyewitness Alec Dick, from nearby Ahousat, told Canadian TV that a wave had “flipped their boat completely”.
He added: “Our faster boats went out there, there were four of our local boats that transported 24 [people] to Tofino and some of them needed medical attention.”
Asked if the people on board had had time to put on lifejackets, he added: “I don’t think they had time to do anything.”Newly-elected Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said he “was “shocked and saddened” to hear of the boat’s sinking, and thanked those who helped with the rescue efforts.
Three of those killed were pronounced dead less than an hour after the boat sank. Two other fatalities were later announced, while the case of the missing fifth person has been passed from the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre to the Canadian police department.
A statement from Jamie Bray, owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station, said: “It has been a tragic day. Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved.”
According to the company’s website, a trip aboard the 65ft Leviathan II, billed as “Tofino’s largest and most comfortable whale watching vessel”, costs £54 per person.