Whale-watching boat sinks off British Columbia; 5 dead, 1 missing

Updated

Five people died and another was missing early Monday after a whale-watching boat sank off the coast of Canadian province of British Columbia, officials said.

The 64-foot Leviathan II had 27 people on board when it went down at around 5 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) on Sunday, eight miles northwest of the Vancouver Island community of Tofino.

Jamie’s Whaling Station and Adventure Centres, the vessel’s tour operator, said in a statement early Monday that the incident marked a “tragic day” and that its “entire team is heartbroken.”

The five people found dead were all British nationals, U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement. Hammond said he made the announcement with “deep sadness” and described the incident as a “terrible accident.”

A total of 21 people were rescued and one was still missing by the time crews finished a search on Sunday night.

The incident has been handed over to the Royal Mounted Canadian Police as a missing-persons case, Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lt. Melissa Kia said in an automated telephone message.

At least 18 of the survivors were taken to the hospital and some of had been discharged by early Monday, according to medical officials.

It was not immediately clear what caused the vessel to sink. It sent a mayday call on what was a calm, clear and sunny day, according to The Associated Press.

According to eyewitnesses and photos apparently from the scene, the boat was at one point submerged apart from 10 feet of its bow pointing vertically out of the water.

A Royal Canadian Air Force Cormorant helicopter and a fast-response rescue boat arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the mayday call, Kia said.

Official efforts were aided by fishing boats and other civilian vessels, and Kia told NBC News that “seeing that kind of response is always kind of heartening.”

People from the nearby Ahousaht First Nation were among those helping with the search. Aboriginal Councilor Tom Campbell told the AP that he was on the waterfront and watched as rescuers brought several survivors ashore.

“Their looks tell the whole story,” he told the news agency. “You can’t describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost.”

According to the website of Jamie’s Whaling Station and Adventure Centres, the Leviathan II tour lasts up to three hours and costs around $82 for an adult. The vessel boasted a licensed bar, a washroom and inside heated seating.

“It has been a tragic day,” the company said in a statement. “Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved.”

It was not the first fatal accident on the firm’s record. In March 1998, another of its vessels, the 20-foot Ocean Thunder, was caught in heavy swell while watching marine life off Tofino.

The tour operator and one passenger were killed after all four people on board were thrown into the water.

This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com

Whale-watching boat sinks off British Columbia; 5 dead, 1 missing

Updated