When disaster strikes on British Columbia’s “wild West Coast,” First Nations with intimate knowledge of coastal waters have typically been at the forefront of rescue efforts.
This was the case last Thursday October 22, when Ahousaht First Nation members bolted to the scene after the 65-foot Leviathan II whale-watching boat capsized west of Vancouver Island. Fishermen Clarence Smith and Ken Lucas braved huge waves in water some described as a “washing machine” to pull survivors to safety before official rescue crews arrived. They did so with little more than jackets and sweaters to cover the stricken, chilled passengers, and no medical equipment to speak of.
Now the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council—which represents Ahousaht and 13 other First Nation communities—is calling for its members to be recognized as first responders and given specialized search-and-rescue training and equipment. The accident, which left five tourists dead and one missing, has reignited previous discussions about providing coastal First Nations communities with emergency-response capacity. Nuu-chah-nulth president Deb Foxcroft said the tribal council will ask the federal and provincial governments for more resources.
“We’re on the wild West Coast, and there are always incidents,” Foxcroft told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Efforts should be coordinated between coastal First Nations and other search and rescue groups, she said. Moreover, the indigenous communities should be equipped with items such as emergency warming blankets, night-vision goggles and defibrillators.
Ahousaht members did what they could for the shaken Leviathan II passengers after pulling them from the water, they recounted to Maclean’s and other media. It was chance that they saw anything at all. Lucas happened to turn around just in time to see the flash of a lone flare set off by a crewmember as the Leviathan II sank, broadsided and flipped by a rogue wave. Lucas alerted Smith. The two pulled in their lines and hit the throttle.
Following the sounds of screams, the fishing partners came upon the chaotic scene: a man whose ankle was so tangled in a line that they had to cut him out; two women, one pregnant and the other with a broken leg, clutching one another in the water; others clinging to rocks. Many were coated in slick diesel.
Smith and Lucas called for reinforcements—first trying the Coast Guard, which could not hear them well, and then turning to their own people, who mobilized immediately.
“As in previous marine accidents in B.C. coastal waters, while the Coast Guard and Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (CMSAR) scrambled to deploy their resources, local First Nations, in this case from Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, responded to the distress flare and arrived in time to pull survivors out of the water,” said the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council in a statement.
A total of 21 people were rescued. The five who died have all been identified as Britons, ranging in age from 18 to 76. One passenger, 27-year-old Australian Rav Pillay, 27, has not been found.
Fisherman Tony Cook told the Ha-Shilth-Sa newspaper that he had listened on his own radio to Smith’s attempts to describe the Leviathan II’s plight to the Coast Guard and said there would have been a lot more deaths if Ahousaht members had not been on hand. In fact according to the National Post, all the rescued people were picked up by First Nation members.
“They saved so many,” Cook said, adding that it invoked the 2006 Queen of the North ferry sinking south of Prince Rupert, when Gitga'at people sped toward a mayday call in the dead of night, beating most official rescue sources to the scene, as recounted by The Tyee.
Foxcroft said the role that First Nations play in rescue demonstrates that they should not only receive equipment but also be provided with support for trauma. This is especially important as tourism grows, she said.
“As greater and greater numbers of tourists flock to experience our 'Wild West Coast,' this tragic accident highlights once again how suddenly a day on the water, even aboard a well-equipped vessel with a well-trained crew, can turn deadly,” the Nuu-chah-nulth statement noted.
“Our Nuu-chah-nulth people have operated their vessels in B.C. coastal waters since time immemorial, and have accumulated a priceless body of knowledge,” the Nuu-chah-nulth said. “When a marine emergency arises, our people take to their boats without hesitation, often in extremely hazardous conditions.”
Foxcroft lauded the Ahousaht rescuers’ heroism and said they deserve formal recognition down the road, beyond that from their own community.
"We are so proud of the way our Nuu-chah-nulth Nations and the coastal communities of Tofino and Ucluelet pulled together in this crisis," said Foxcroft in the statement. "We are all one in our caring and concern for all those who live in or travel through our territories."
For now, though, the rescuers are dealing with their own trauma, she told ICTMN.
“They just need time now to rest and heal and because this is a very traumatic experience for them,” Foxcroft said. “We’re hoping to give them as much support as we can in the healing process.”