Tour boat captain fired; naturalist tells of vessel sinking

Humpback whales in North Pass between Lincoln Island and Shelter Island in the Lynn Canal north of Juneau. (Creative Commons Photo by Evadb)
Humpback whales in North Pass swim between Lincoln Island and Shelter Island in the Lynn Canal north of Juneau Saturday, August 18, 2007. (Creative Commons Photo by Evadb)

Multiple boats helped rescue 18 people from the Dolphin Jet Boat Tours whale-watching vessel, Big Red, which struck a rock and sank Sunday.

The Coast Guard received a distress call that the tour boat was taking on water at 12:17 p.m. Sunday.

Douglas Ward, the owner of Dolphin tours, said he was shocked by the accident and was grateful everyone made it off the boat safely.

The Big Red’s captain was fired, Ward said.

Mike Clasby, a naturalist with Dolphin tours, said he and the Big Red’s captain were bringing 16 tourists back to Juneau after a tour.

They were between Shelter Island and Aaron Island, passing the southern tip of Aaron Island in Favorite Channel. The boat struck an uncharted rock, according to Coast Guard spokeswoman Lauren Steenson, petty officer 3rd class.

He said the sinking couldn’t have taken more than five to six minutes.

“I was facing the stern of the boat and looking at the passengers and all of the sudden there was this horrific bang,” Clasby said. “I thought we hit a whale. Then I realized that it was a little more than that because I ended up on the floor of the boat.”

Clasby first checked on the passengers and the captain, he said. Then went to see whether the engine compartment was damaged.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll be right back,’ and I went back and opened the stern (door), and popped open the starboard hatch, and there was water coming in the engine compartment,” he said.

With water coming on too fast, Clasby thought about deploying the life raft but said he instead decided it was more important to get everyone in life vests first.

“The captain and I went towards the back, and then (water) was really coming onboard,” Clasby said. “We made a plan that he was going to try and get the life raft, which was now underwater actually, released.”

That’s when he said they saw a boat.

“I yelled, and yelled, and screamed, and he was waving, and I was waving and all of the sudden this boat called Sea Ya waved back and turned towards us,” Clasby said.

The Sea Ya was the first vessel to reach the Big Red. The Juneau harbormaster’s office said the boat measured about 30 feet long. Clasby said it wasn’t big enough, but they still managed to fit almost everyone aboard.

“Then all the sudden the boat (Big Red) sank,” Clasby said. “It was taking that much water on. There was four of us that didn’t make it onto the Sea Ya, we were hanging on the edge. And the captain, who was the last one off of our boat, had a life jacket and he drifted away, unfortunately, which turned out to be OK.”

Clasby and remaining passengers made it aboard the Sea Ya, he said. The captain later was retrieved from the water.

The St. Herman, Allen Marine Tour’s boat, collected the Big Red’s passengers and returned them to shore.

Capital City Fire/Rescue reported all of the tour boat’s passengers and crew refused medical treatment, including one person who suffered a knee injury.

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