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November 03, 2015

Life and Death and the Leviathan II

Image by Jim Munnelly 

There but for the grace of God go any one of us.

Maybe that’s what you thought as well upon hearing the news of the capsized whale watching boat, the Leviathan II, off Tofino, B.C. and the death of six tourists.

I looked up Leviathan. It's a word from the Old Testament meaning sea creature or sea monster.

There were 21 survivors thanks in huge part to those who have called the coast home for centuries, in this case, the Ahousaht, their livelihoods and histories on the ocean intertwined like veins on the backs of their hands, As we now know, two Ahousaht fishermen were first on scene, primed perhaps from a history of trauma and subsequent crisis assimilation; fight or flight, always at the ready.

One of the fishermen, turned, saw a flare, knew right away, and headed towards the Leviathan II. The response similar to the way their brothers (and sisters?) took to the waters of Hartley Bay after the MV Queen of the North accident in 2006. And probably during so many other lesser marine crises that never warrant publicity, lingering only in the minds of the few involved.

Every time you and I have gone on vacation, we have been those individuals. Whether close to home or on a far flung adventure, we trusted that everything wasn’t just going to be okay, it was going to be fantastic. Our expectations were the very best of what we packed.

It was me every time I stepped onto the whale watching zodiac on Salt Spring on more than a few occasions with the former owner, Ian Gidney, at the helm. I totally trusted that we, his passengers, were in good hands. After all, he'd done it for such a long time, handling that zodiac like a jeep on water, even on that day it felt like we were re-enacting  a new version of that movie, Thelma and Louise. 

He just kept going and going, south and farther south still. Like a man with OCD, he was going to find us whales, no matter how long it took. And he did. Freighters passing not too far away in a shipping lane.

Add to that, all those other times in a kayak, even though I've never been properly trained, can't do an Eskimo Roll, and have no real idea how I’d react to being tipped over.

The very first time, a sunset cruise out of Ganges Harbour, circa 1996.  A summer evening, a little cloudy, a little windy, but nothing to get too worked up about, until that is, the grey turned charcoal, the cloud cover bowed like a geisha, the wind pitched like a cyclone, and every stroke became agony.

"Stick together," yelled the guide, the quiver in his voice its own sound wave, trying, unsuccessfully to hide his anxiety, screaming into the wind, his yells translating into a whisper, "Turn around, stick together!" 

Our individual wills focused on the brown spec of a wharf we'd launched from less than an hour before, and when we finally made it back, exhaling our long held breaths, too tired to haul ourselves onto that rough old dock, just relief, that's all.

Or, on another kayak trip. Discovery Islands Group. Last day of the trip. A large wave caught my kayak from behind and carried me, just like that, a long ways away from the group. It looked as if I was intentionally surfing, another guide’s voice yelling my name, thinking I might be going all rogue on him on purpose. As if! 

Or further afield, giving my safety some thought, but not much, hoping for the best, donning invincible tourist mode, and stepping onto a patch-worked riverboat in Cambodia with barely a lawnmower put put motor to steer us down that shallow river from Lampang into the Tonle Sap. Or that beautiful day out of Sihanoukville, heading for Koh Ta Kiev, with stops for snorkeling into the sea blue waters in a place that was all the better because of its foreign-ness, any potential danger someone else's concern. "Don't worry. You worry too much."

And finally, my own experience on a whale watching expedition out of Tofino so long ago. Millions before us over the years with the same excitement at what we all might get to see, surely the same for those six tourists looking forward to a great day and real live Orcas not too far away.

A trip similar to one that thousands upon thousands have also taken out of that picturesque West Coast village. The scramble, pulling, and shimmying into the survival suits before finding a place in a zodiac, hip to hip.  Was it April? Might have been. Easter? Maybe. 

We sat huddled together as the little rubber vessel bucked its way, headstrong, out across that black, frigid ocean. The slab of barnacled backs of the Grays that we'd come to spot, not quite real, but too close and scary to me; living submarines. 

And the cold, mostly the cold, that's what I still recall. Wanting to verbalize what every goose bump on my body was screaming, which was, "I've had enough now. Can we turn around now?"

Each and every one of us on every journey we take, hope. Hope that there but for the grace of God comes true for us just one more time, rising inside to save us, because we choose to participate, not just observe, not all the time at least.

True for boat people, and true, shockingly, for those six individuals who lost their lives in such an unlikely way in such a safe (relatively speaking) part of the world on October 25, 2015, in a place of hauntingly wild beauty.

So not fair indeed.

Out of respect for the people who lost their lives, I list their names:

  • Katie Taylor, 29, of Whistler, B.C.
  • Jack Slater, 76, of Toronto.
  • Nigel Francis Hooker, 63, of Southampton, U.K.
  • David Wyndham Thomas, 50, of Swindon, U.K.
  • Stephen David Thomas, 18, also of Swindon, son of David Thomas.
  • and Ravisham Pillay, 27, from Australia (still missing).


Unknown said...

So beautifully written, Gayle. Thanks.

I felt the dangerous power of the ocean in your descriptions - how terrifyingly beautiful water can be. As a "landlubber" who prefers dry land, always, I was in awe of your maritime adventures.

Your piece reminds me that life Is indeed very fragile, and as you say, anything can happen when we choose to participate rather than just observe. This time the result was tragedy. The challenge, I guess, is to take the plunge nonetheless.

I also thought of the present day refugees who take to the water in order to find a better life, with often tragic results.

Gayle Mavor said...

Thank you Elaine. Yes, the fragility of life is so stark in this incident. I mean considering all the really dangerous places in the world to travel to, (and people knowingly taking to the ocean, 'boatpeople' to grasp at their futures) and knowing what that little village of Tofino looks like on a beautiful day, it was the randomness and the unfairness that struck me. Not that ocean, no matter where, isn't dangerous but it's also so beautiful, that it's easy to forget that. It's so sad for these people's families and it's sad for Tofino.