Should Lifejackets be Worn on Whale Watching Boats? |

Should Lifejackets be Mandatory on Whale Watching Tours?

On October 25th, the news that a whale watching boat from Tofino had sunk off Plover Reefs was shocking. How could this have happened? I have been on numerous whale watching trips and observed that the tour companies abided by strict safety measures. In fact, we are so confident about whale watching that we often suggest it to our out-of-town guests as an activity to do while they are visiting.

As snippets of news stories were released, the details of the tragedy were revealed. A sudden wave broadsided the boat which was unbalanced by the weight of guests watching sealions from the upper deck causing it to capsize. That’s all it took. Of the 27 people onboard – there were six fatalities and 18 people sent to hospital – lives changed forever.

It happened so quickly that there was no time for the crew to issue a mayday call. If not for the serendipitous turn of the head by a local fisherman from the Ahoushat First Nation who witnessed the flare sent up by some of the survivors in a life raft – this tragedy would have been much worse. Other survivors were in the cold Pacific Ocean clinging to debris from the boat.

The waters off the coast on British Columbia are cold year-round. After a few minutes in the water, even the strongest swimmer’s muscles will be affected by the coldness. Arms and legs become heavy and are unable to swim. Hypothermia is often the killer of people involved in water immersion accidents. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada had this to say about cold water survival in their report on another whale boat accident in 1998 also at Plover Reefs:

” The sea water temperature was 11.5°C. Studies of cooling rates for an average adult holding still in ocean water of 11.5°C (wearing a standard lifejacket and light clothing) show a predicted survival time of about 1.8 hours. Extra body fat can increase survival time.”


My experience on the water has taught me that that boating is a safe activity – statistically it is probably safer than driving your car. However, when things go badly on a boat it happens quickly. This is why having safety equipment on board and being in the habit of using it is so important.

Should Lifejackets be Mandatory on Whale Watching Tours? |
A fun day in a zodiac whale watching boat

In Canada, the safety guidelines for boaters are established by Transport Canada. Depending on the size of your boat, you are required to carry certain safety equipment and can be fined if your boat is found to be lacking in this equipment. These guidelines are a minimum standard for safety and boat owners should develop their own safety plans in addition to these guidelines. Many local whale boat operators are members of the Pacific Whale Watching Association, a self-regulating organization of operators who developed standards of conduct long before they were regulated to do so by Transport Canada.

Immersion suits are worn on zodiac whale watching tours, but perhaps it is time for lifejackets to be worn by all passengers? The current reason for not wearing lifejackets on boats that have enclosed areas for passengers is the possibility of the lifejacket being snagged on something inside the cabin when trying to exit the boat quickly. This is true, but given the passenger’s inexperience with boats, wouldn’t a lifejacket increase their odds of surviving a catastrophic accident? I see similarities with the decision to make it mandatory to wear a helmet when riding a bike; it can’t hurt should the unthinkable happen.

One of the rules on our boat is that everyone must wear a lifejacket before we leave the dock; this rule is non negotiable. Once we are safely at anchor, the lifejackets come off, but when we are underway, lifejackets are on. When we are not wearing our lifejackets they are within easy reach should we have to suddenly move the boat. Some boaters don’t like to wear lifejackets because they find them bulky. There are many styles of lifejackets on the market and newer designs are not bulky so you aren’t even aware that you are wearing one.

You don’t have to be in rough conditions for bad things to happen. Boaters have died by falling off their boat in a marina at night. If they are injured in the fall or have no means to hoist themselves out of the water, hypothermia sets in and results in a drowning death.

Adults don’t typically wear lifejackets when on the dock, but it is a good practice for children to do so. During the summer at our marina, local children come down to the docks to fish. There are lifejackets provided to keep the children safe should they accidentally fall in. Docks can be slippery and an excited child with their first fish on a line are not thinking about personal safety. A lifejacket will help protect a child from drowning should they fall in the water.

I don’t know if lifejackets would have made a difference in the sinking of the Leviathan II, but it might have improved the odds of survival for someone who was injured by the accident before they hit the water. The Transportation Safety Board will no doubt be making recommendations to improve marine safety as a result of this tragic accident. Be your own safety board and wear your lifejacket.

Further reading:

October 25, 2015, Times Colonist

October 26, 2015, Globe and Mail

October 26, 2015, CHEK News

October 26, 2015, CBC News

October 30, 2015, Global News

Captain of Leviathan II makes first statement on boat’s sinking


Updated news articles:

November 6, 2015, CKNW

November 23, 2015, CBC News

November 24, 2015, Huffington Post



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