Britons who died in whale-watching tragedy 'were not wearing life jackets'


Five Britons who died when a whale-watching boat sank off the coast of Canada were not wearing life jackets although plenty were available, the local coroner said.

David Thomas, 50, and his 18-year-old son Stephen, from Swindon, Wiltshire, were among five Britons who died after the boat overturned near Vancouver Island on Sunday.

Nigel Hooker, 63, from Southampton, was also killed along with ex-pats Jack Slater, 76, who lived in Toronto, and Katie Taylor, 29, who lived in the ski resort of Whistler. 

Matt Brown, regional coroner for the Island Region of the British Columbia Coroners Service, said: "What we have found thus far is that none were wearing life jackets.

"As I understand through the current regulations that's not a requirement in the area that they were or on this vessel."

He added: "Our understanding at this time is that life jackets were on board. I believe that this vessel can occupy up to 50 individuals. There were 27 on board and there were life jackets available for all of them."  

Speaking at a press conference, Mr Brown said the boat had two decks, adding: "The information we have is that they were at the top of the boat."

He said the top deck was open whereas the lower deck was enclosed by windows.

A 27-year-old man from Sydney remains missing, he said.

Mr Brown said the incident happened "very quickly" and the "chaotic environment" created "a very challenging rescue operation for many involved".

The boat, run by local tour firm Jamie's Whaling Station, got into difficulty eight miles from the small town of Tofino, around 150 miles west of Vancouver.

Following the incident the company's owner, Jamie Bray, said passengers on the boat were not required to wear life jackets.

"On larger vessels we're not required to have the passengers wear the life jackets. On smaller open boats they are," he said.

Local fisherman Clarence Smith said one survivor believed a wave had capsized the boat and a pregnant woman and another woman with a broken leg were among those rescued.

"The lady was saying that a wave just capsized them," Mr Smith said. "That's why there weren't any communications on the radio, no mayday."

Stephen's mother Julie was rescued from the stricken vessel, Leviathan II, along with 20 other people on board.

The Down's Syndrome Association paid tribute to Stephen, whom it described as "very talented young man" and a "gifted photographer", while his father was a "huge supporter" of the charity.

Stephen's brother, Paul Thomas, a 22-year-old University of Nottingham student, was flying out to Canada to be with his mother who is in hospital with minor injuries, the Swindon Advertiser reported.

Mr Slater, who was originally from Salford but had lived in Canada for many years, was on board the boat with his wife Marjorie but she was rescued, the BBC reported.

One of his daughters described her father's death as a "tragedy beyond belief".

Writing on Facebook, Michele Slater Brown said: "Our hearts are broken today, our father was one of the people who lost their lives on the whale-watching tragedy in Tofino.

"Our dad was larger than life, a charmer, handsome, entrepreneur, engineer in the Navy, he was 76 years old, he was our dad, our lovely dad, I will miss him forever but I'm grateful for all the times I spent with him, I love you dad."

The boat began to take on water around two hours and 15 minutes after it took off on its whale-watching tour, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said. Investigators will now examine the wreckage of the vessel, its maintenance history and and consider the weather conditions at the time.

Mr Brown it had not been decided if post-mortem examinations were required and said the chief coroner would decide whether an inquest would be held.

He added that the findings of the coroners' investigation - which could take a year - will be made public through a report or an inquest.

Jamie's Whaling Station suffered a previous fatal accident, with a boat becoming swamped and rolling to an angle in 1998, killing the captain and a tourist, and an incident two years earlier when a captain suffered head injuries, but survived, after falling asleep and running a boat aground.