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The capsized MV Leviathan II sinking as Ahousaht First Nation boats scramble to help those forced into the water as the ship sank.

The Leviathan II was rolling with the steady swell coming in from the open Pacific when the 27 people on a whale-watching trip from Tofino suddenly realized they were in trouble.

Instead of riding up the face of the next wave, the 20-metre boat, with a high, open viewing platform on the upper deck, just flipped over. And investigators and the company don't know why.

Five people – all British tourists – died and a sixth person, a 27-year-old Australian, was missing after the tour boat operated by Jamie's Whaling Station went down near Plover Reefs, in a rugged wilderness area on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. The Sydney man's family said he was on the boat with his girlfriend and her family when it sank, the Australian Associated Press reported. His girlfriend's father was among the five British citizens confirmed dead, it said.

It happened so fast there was no time for a mayday call according to officials with Jamie's Whaling Station, who held a news conference Monday afternoon to express their dismay.

"Traumatized, I think would be an appropriate word," said Jamie Bray, owner of the company, about his feelings. "Disbelief. I think the whole community has experienced the same emotions."

The ship just kept going down according to a man who took in a young couple who survived one of the country's worst marine accidents of the decade.

The two survivors who told their story, a man and woman whose names haven't been released, were helped by Ralph Tieleman, a day trader and surfer in Tofino who comforted them at a friend's house Sunday night. After they warmed up, he drove them to a hotel where a group of survivors was staying, including two young women who had lost their father and one woman's boyfriend.

Marc-André Poisson, director of marine investigations for the Transportation Safety Board, said in a Tofino news conference that the TSB has four investigators probing the accident but it is too soon to say what caused it. The partly submerged vessel has been towed to a sheltered area for later examination and the passengers and crew have yet to be interviewed.

The incident happened just before 5 p.m. Sunday as the tour boat was finishing a trip in search of roving pods of killer whales. The ship had pulled up near the reef, where large numbers of sea lions rest on the wave-swept rocks, when disaster hit.

"The boat was rolling … they basically said it just went over and kept going … they expected it was going to roll back but it didn't," said Mr. Tieleman. "They said it just started going – and it kept going."

He said the couple, both in their early 20s, were thrown into the frigid water.

Mr. Tieleman said the couple told him nobody had life jackets on.

"They had to swim through the diesel slick to get in the life raft," he said. "The poor kids they just stunk of diesel. It was all in their eyes, their hair, their clothes; everything. My truck still stinks of diesel from giving them a ride."

When the marine radio channels began to squawk with emergency calls Sunday, nearly everyone with a boat in the small town of Tofino, and in the nearby native community of Ahousaht, raced to help.

One boat of rescuers pulled in eight or nine survivors from a life raft, others helped people from the water including a man who was tangled in a rope to the Leviathan II, submerged except for its bow; others recovered bodies or brought in the personal items – purses, money, clothing, shoes – they found floating on the surface.

The RCMP put the recovered items in a hotel room and survivors were allowed to search through for things they owned.

At a news conference in Tofino representatives of Jamie's Whaling Station (which has been in business for more than 30 years with one previous accident in 1998 that cost two lives) said they were shocked by the incident.

"This has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved and our whole community. The safety and security of our passengers is our main concern and we are absolutely devastated by what took place," said Corene Inouye, director of operations for Jamie's Whaling Station.

"To the best of our knowledge, there was no distress call. From what we know at this stage, it appears the incident happened so quickly the crew didn't have an opportunity to send out a mayday," she said.

However, the crew was able to access emergency flares.

Ms. Inouye said the skipper was experienced and the Leviathan II was a sound vessel that had made the same trip twice a day for the past 20 years.

Mr. Bray said the three crew members had been left traumatized.

He said the ship had more than 50 life jackets aboard as well as three life rafts. Passengers weren't wearing life jackets.

"Transport Canada advises not to wear a life jacket on a vessel with enclosed compartments," said Mr. Bray. "In the event of a sinking, it would be very difficult to exit a vessel when you're being held up to the ceiling or the deck with a life jacket on. So, on larger vessels, we're not required to have passengers wear the life jackets."

The accident comes as a major blow to Tofino, a small town of about 2,000 people where whale watching and ecotourism are a big part of the economy. Perched on the edge of Clayoquot Sound, the former logging and fishing town began in the late 1980s to transform itself into one of the West Coast's most popular tourism destinations. On Monday night there was a community meeting but members of the media were asked to stay outside.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said the community is in shock over the incident.

Prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier Christy Clark expressed their condolences.

"I was shocked and saddened to hear of the sinking of a whale-watching boat near the B.C. coast and the passengers aboard who have lost their lives in the incident," Mr. Trudeau said. Both he and Ms. Clark thanked people who helped in the rescue.

Nearly every home in Ahousaht has a marine radio and would have been aware of the Leviathan II getting into trouble, said Greg Louie, chief councillor with the Ahousaht First Nation.

Seven boats and about 30 Ahousaht people helped pull survivors and bodies from the water Sunday and most were back on the scene Monday.

"Our volunteers have all been out on the water since 7 this morning," Mr. Louie said in an interview, adding that the community has an active search-and-rescue team. "When there's a distress call, they don't wait for anybody."

According to Transportation Safety Board data, the sinking of the Leviathan II is one of the two worst marine accidents in Canada since 2004. In 2013, five died in the capsizing of the Miss Ally, on the Atlantic Coast. The worst six accidents prior to that each had four fatalities.

With reports from Wendy Stueck, Tu Thanh Ha, Mike Hager and The Canadian Press