Recreational boaters watch two orca whales swim near Juneau in July 2011.

Recreational boaters watch two orca whales swim near Juneau in July 2011.

Whale-watching boat sinks; 18 rescued

Eighteen people are wet but alive after their whale-watching boat sank Sunday afternoon in Favorite Channel.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the 35-foot Dolphin Jet Boat Tours whale-watching boat Big Red began taking on water about 12:45 p.m. at the south end of Aaron Island, a rocky knob in the middle of Favorite Channel at the latitude of Tee Harbor.

“We didn’t get any amplified information. We just knew we had a vessel taking on water, so we took a dewatering pump,” said Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Nancy Emery of Coast Guard Station Juneau.

The station sent its 25-foot Response Boat-Small, but by the time the boat arrived on scene, the Big Red was underwater and all of its passengers had been picked up by the Allen Marine tour boat St. Herman, which answered the Big Red’s distress call.

The “Sea Ya,” a recreational boat, also responded to the distress call and helped pick up the Big Red’s passengers, the Coast Guard said by email.

Doug Ward, owner of the tour company, credited the “Sea You” with picking up as many people as could fit aboard the small boat. 

The passengers arrived soon afterward at the Allen Marine Tours dock in good condition, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We had a report of one possible knee injury,” she said.

Assistant Chief Ed Quinto of Capital City Fire-Rescue confirmed that none of the Big Red’s passengers were taken to Bartlett Memorial Hospital, and the knee injury was the only significant harm to any of the passengers.

“They were cold and wet when they got off,” but that was it, he said.

“Personal floatation devices only work when you wear them, and mariners are reminded to ensure all personnel aboard are wearing or have quick access to a life vest,” said Lt. Jennifer Ferreira, Coast Guard Sector Juneau command duty officer, in a prepared statement. “In this case, the crew of the Big Red took swift and decisive actions to ensure life vests were handed to all passengers after the vessel began taking on water.”

Ward was in Florida when reached by the Empire. He said, first and foremost, that he’s glad everyone made it off the boat alive. 

“It’s just a boat,” he said, explaining that his principal concern was for the passengers and the crew, whom he identified as skipper Kimball Ho and naturalist Mike Clasby.

“They lost some cameras and some binoculars, but no lives,” Ward said.

He added that the boat has settled in about 20 feet of water, and he doesn’t believe any oil or fuel is leaking from it. He plans to salvage the boat.

The Coast Guard is continuing to investigate the sinking, and Ward said he’s looking into the matter as well.

Dolphin Jet Boat Tours is a locally owned company that has been operating for 22 years out of Juneau.

The incident didn’t appear to interrupt business: As of 4:45 p.m., ticket-sellers on the downtown docks said they still had seats for sale aboard Dolphin boats.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the name of the Good Samaritan vessel. The Coast Guard originally said the vessel was named “See You.” The correct spelling is “Sea Ya.”

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