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A B.C. ferry makes its way into the Horseshoe Bay terminal in September 2007.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A BC Ferries captain decided to return the Queen of Cowichan to its berth at Horseshoe Bay Sunday, delaying the sailing by an hour, after staff discovered a five-month-old baby was onboard without its mother.

A woman boarded the 8:30 a.m. Nanaimo sailing with her child after leaving two coolers on the onshore luggage rack.

An announcement prompted her to return to the Horseshoe Bay terminal when the coolers were discovered.

She left her baby with a woman she met in the waiting room and went to deal with the coolers, which are not permitted on BC Ferries luggage racks because they "tend to leak and damage other peoples' luggage," said BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.

Shortly after the woman left the ship, it set sail, separating the mother from her child.

"She didn't notify the crew that she would be leaving a baby onboard when she exited the vessel to go collect these belongings," said Ms. Marshall.

She noted that the woman was quite upset about the situation.

BC Ferries terminal staff contacted the ship's captain about the baby after they realized what had happened.

"Between the terminal staff and the woman, they pieced this together and talked to the captain on board the vessel," said Ms. Marshall.

The captain decided to turn the ship around and pick up the mother. This delayed the vessel for the remainder of the day.

Ms. Marshall said BC Ferries usually only turns ships around for medical emergencies. "This would be extremely rare," she said.

"You have to be cognizant. You're delaying all of the other passengers that are on board the ship as well as anybody else who would be boarding that ship for the rest of the day."

Ms. Marshall said this is the first time she has heard of a mother leaving an infant on board a BC Ferries vessel.

"We're also doing an investigation to look at the learnings between the ship and shore staff – how this could have happened," she said.