RICHMOND, B.C. — Insufficient route planning and the absence of a dedicated lookout contributed to a tourist vessel running aground during a bear-watching excursion off Vancouver Island in October 2016, the Transportation Safety Board says.
Twenty-six passengers and two crew members had to be rescued after the Stellar Sea hit a rock during a trip organized by Jamie's Whaling Station out of Tofino, B.C. Two passengers fell and suffered minor injuries when the vessel halted abruptly.
Nine of the passengers were picked up soon after the 12-metre vessel grounded in Warn Bay, but a falling tide caused the ship to tilt and forced the remaining 17 passengers to wait on a nearby rock until they were rescued.
"Although the reduced manning level of two was allowed by Transport Canada, the investigation found that two crew members were insufficient to maintain an adequate lookout for navigational hazards and ensure that the master was able to focus on navigating and avoiding hazards during the voyage," the report says. "No one saw the rock in time to prevent the vessel from running aground."
A spokesman for Jamie's Whaling Station said they will be reviewing the board's report to see where procedures can be enhanced.
"We know the well-being of our passengers and crew depends on us and we take that responsibility seriously," Ryan Teremy said in an email statement.
The safety board report released Thursday says the ship's captain did not use the chart plotter and echo sounder system to their full potential while navigating what it describes as a challenging marine environment filled with numerous hazards, including rocks, reefs and a large tidal range.
The report also says Jamie's Whaling Station did not notify the coast guard for more than four hours after the grounding and not until all the passengers were safe. Neither the master nor the company issued any kind of distress signal, as required by both federal regulation and company policy.
"It is critical that masters and companies of small passenger vessels alert search-and-rescue services as soon as possible after an accident takes place. Doing so provides search-and-rescue resources with more time to plan the rescue and increases the chances of a successful rescue," the report says.
"For example, in situations where people have entered the water, timeliness is paramount, given the high risk of hypothermia and drowning."
The report says Jamie's Whaling Station updated its emergency procedures last March to emphasize the requirement to contact the coast guard in an emergency, and increased the frequency of its safety drills.
Teremy said Jamie's Whaling Station agrees with the board's criticism about not immediately contacting the coast guard, a move he said failed to meet company standards.
"We fully agree this should have been done," Teremy said. "We know we must do better."
The Stellar Sea was refloated two days after it ran aground and was towed to nearby Ucluelet for inspection and repairs.
Jamie's Whaling Station also owns the Leviathan II, a whale-watching vessel that capsized after it was hit by a rogue wave in October 2015, throwing 27 people into the water and killing six.
— By Geordon Omand in Vancouver. Follow @gwomand on Twitter.