The State of Arctic & West Coast SAR
K. JOSEPH SPEARS
© 2015 FrontLine Security (Vol 10, No 3)

This year has been busy one for Canadian Search and Rescue (SAR) professionals (paid and unpaid), as well as First Nations on Canada’s West Coast and in the Arctic. 

The October 2015 sinking of the Canadian certified whale watching passenger vessel MV Leviathan II near Tofino, British Columbia, with the loss of six lives and the rescue of 21 passengers and crew, shone a light on Canada’s search and rescue capabilities. A month earlier, the sinking of fishing vessel Atlantic Charger in Hudson Strait had a similar impact on Canada’s East Coast. 


The Canadian Transport Canada certified whale watching vessel Leviathan II sank off Tofino B.C. on October 25. 2014.

Global media attention and outpouring of grief focused attention on marine search and rescue and marine response and its importance to coastal communities. The connection was, and is, undeniable. Ecotourism and fishing, both of which depend on renewable marine resources, are critically important to the economy around Canada’s three oceans. 

British Columbia’s marine ecotourism, for example, generates over $1 billion a year to the economy. The same applies to a developing Arctic fishery. The Leviathan II also highlighted the critical role that first responders and commercial vessels of opportunity play, and the fact that all marine response, while it may be federally led, is local in nature. Issues on Canada’s West Coast and in the Arctic can be 
overlaid around Canada’s four oceans as a template for further action and improvement. We need to analyse them for lessons learned and not be afraid to ask the difficult questions.

Canada’s SAR capability is part of its risk management approach to ocean governance. The new government will need to consider how we can deliver effective, federally-led SAR services in a cost-effective manner, and build from incidents that highlight the need to have a robust national search and rescue plan and focus on a risk-based analysis that is regional in nature.

These orders from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been clearly set out in mandate letters to the Minister of Transport, the Hon. Marc Garneau and the Minister of Fisheries and the Coast Guard, the Honourable Hunter Tootoo. 

While these words may seem simple, their implementation is very complex, and search and rescue capability plays a big part in this very clear call for action. The response will involve input from many stakeholders around our country. 

One of the key priorities in the PM’s letter to the Minister of Transport is to: “Work with the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to improve marine safety.”

These search and rescue incidents and their analyses provide an opportunity to strengthen the Canadian SAR regime, which has been referred to as a “major” issue by the international shipping community. Incidents in 2015 highlight gaps in Canada’s SAR capability and where it needs to be expanded.


The Ahoushat people responded immediately to the flare, and the village quickly mobilized for the SAR rescue and then recovery using a flotilla of small vessels.

National Search and Rescue Secretariat
The National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) has been moved to the purview of the department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, under Minister Ralph Goodale. The National SAR Secretariat role (that was developed following the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger) was to develop Canada’s thinking and capability on search and rescue. For many years before this, the NSS reported to the Minister of National Defence and, while it did some good work, has never reached its full potential nor fulfilled the intention of Parliament to create a multi-jurisdictional think tank to look at all search and rescue in a holistic fashion. 

The incident near Tofino highlighted the need for integrative thinking between all levels of government – federal, provincial, municipal, and regional – plus First Nations, the private sector, and NGOs. All have an important role to play, and need to be brought into the discussion. We need to look creatively at how we can deliver both the search and the rescue services across this land as fast as necessary so the missions do not turn into search and recovery. Our SAR professionals are the best in the world, and we need to provide the supportive political leadership and show that the will at the federal level is there.

International SAR obligations
Canada’s SAR obligations cannot be considered solely from a domestic viewpoint. There are international obligations for maritime and aviation SAR under international agreements, as well as under the recently signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (“the SAR Agreement”). As part of the SAR Agreement, Canada extended its search and rescue region to the North Pole. This international treaty was signed in May 2011 by the member states of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland. 

In addition, as a coastal nation, Canada has clear obligations to provide search and rescue capability under the Law of the Sea Convention. The combination of these agreements requires Canada to have a capable SAR capability which takes sustained funding, commitment, as well as technical development and international cooperation. 

Arctic Risks are viewed by insurers as ‘Very Real’
Here is what the World Maritime News reported at a 2014 conference: “As more and more ships venture into the Arctic, resources to cope with SAR operations, along with potential environmental cleanups, are lacking.”

Speaking at a conference in Hong Kong, Stein Are Hansen, Head of Department, Loss Prevention and Emergency Response, Norwegian Hull Club, said: “Humans make mistakes. Have we really thought about the risks in the Arctic? From the Clipper Adventurer to the Titanic, there have been huge accidents in the Arctic. You can prepare yourself to death but are we prepared for waking up to seeing oil on a polar bear on the front page of the New York Times? There are few search and rescue capabilities in the Arctic. We will soon be responsible for rescuing people up to the North Pole. We need more training and sophisticated equipment to help deal with the potential disasters. For example, fuel stations for helicopters.” 

Last year there were 71 transit voyages in the region, a significant increase over previous years. There were also over 11,000 flights over the Arctic in 2012. Government leadership is required to provide the necessary infrastructure for the safety of life at Sea. It remains a high priority focus of the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Canada no longer has the luxury of just talking about these issues, it needs action on Arctic SAR.

Canada’s SAR Pillars
SAR response cuts across a variety of federal departments (such as Transport Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, Public Safety and National Defence), municipal responders and civilian volunteers. Private sector organizations also come into play when there is a failure of any one of a number of systems, such as when “vessels of opportunity” rescue survivors before official responders arrive on scene. 

This summer we are going to see the cruise ship M/V Crystal Serenity transiting the Northwest Passage with 1000 passengers on board and 800 crew members. This raises important questions about SAR rescue planning at the preventative stage and how potential issues can be dealt with. 

We have seen some of the challenges when the cruise ship Carnival Triumph lost propulsion in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of an engine room fire, and was towed to a port in Mobile Alabama from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, with the U.S. Coast Guard standing by, as the passengers remained on board. That incident gave rise to a U.S. government claim of $700,000 for services provided. An earlier incident involving Carnival Splendor gave rise to a claim involving $3.4 million for costs incurred by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. These marine incidents were in relatively calm and warm waters. In the Arctic, these costs would be many times greater. Cruise ships potentially can give rise to major incidents as was seen with the mega cruise ship Costa Concordia grounding off the Italian coast. 


Transportation Safety Board investigates Tofino tragedy.

Ahoushat Spirit-Tofino 
We need to celebrate what occurred off Plover Reef in the traditional territory and waters of the Ahousaht people. While halibut fishing late on a Sunday afternoon, Ken “Eagle Eyes” Lucas and Clarence “Smitty” Smith spotted a flare from a life raft that had self-deployed from the overturned whale watching vessel Leviathan II. They immediately transited to the breaking reef (a nasty piece of water) and tried to make VHF radio contact with the Canadian Coast Guard. However, they could not be heard on the marine emergency radio frequency VHF16. Quickly, they relayed the mayday call to their local working channel, VHF 68. This triggered a community response that saw over half the village participating and supporting rescue and recovery operations. They had developed their own village emergency response plan, without question and without funding. They are unpaid SAR professionals. They are true heroes.

After the rescue of 21 survivors was completed, the Ahousaht people, under the direction of the RCMP Marine Unit, continued to search for the missing Australian passenger. It is part of their culture not to leave anybody at sea. This was an emotional and difficult situation for the communities of both Tofino and Ahousaht, and showcased a powerful community spirit. 

This missing person search conducted under the direction of Royal Canadian Mounted Police marine unit volunteer divers from their underwater recovery team, relied on the people of the village of Ahousaht,  along with air support provided by Transport Canada’s state-of-the-art surveillance aircraft. While outside the rubric of search and rescue, the recovery of missing persons from any marine disaster is incredibly important to the families and highlights once again the strong sense of community. It was difficult and dangerous work diving among heavy ocean swells and kelp beds, with 2000-pound sea lions swimming in these waters. It’s not for the faint of heart. The people of the Ahousaht have a sacred and spiritual connection to these waters, and their history and long-standing tradition is never to leave anyone at sea. They weren’t asked to do this difficult work. They volunteered. We need to channel that same spirit in the development of the national search and rescue plan.

Russian adventurer crashed
The SAR season commenced with a successful SAR rescue. A Russian adventurer, Sergey Ananov, used a single engine helicopter to transit around the Arctic Circle. The Robinson R22 helicopter left Iqaluit, Nunavut on 27 July 2015 enroute to Nuuk, Greenland, but ran into engine problems over Davis Strait. While the pilot was able to land on an ice flow in Davis Strait, that ice flow was also home to a number of polar bears. For 30 hours he fended off the bears while a search was mounted, with the Halifax SAR team making use of all available resources. CCGS Pierre Radisson, a medium-duty icebreaker commissioned in 1978 was in the area with an onboard helicopter. When it heard the mayday it steamed towards the last known position and managed to locate and airlift Sergey, who was down to his last three flares. 

Staying afloat & staying alive
On 22 September 2015, the Newfoundland Fishing Vessel Atlantic Charger, a state-of-the-art dragger, sank at the entrance of the Hudson Strait in Canada’s Arctic waters. These treacherous waters are notorious for a large tidal flow. What caused the vessel to sink is presently unknown. 

Crew members abandoned ship in a life raft and were able to activate an emergency beacon which aided searchers in locating the vessel position. In response, a SAR aircraft was able to drop a radio to the survivors. MV Arctic (owned and operated by Fednav of Montréal) and Greenland trawler Pamiut responded to the distress call and were able to rescue the crew members. Arctic was the first to arrive on the scene, but was forced to abort its rescue efforts due to heavy seas, but not before launching a dry life raft to provide temporary relief to the crew members. Finally, Pamiut arrived on the scene and rescued the men by picking them up with a Zodiac craft it had managed to launch despite the dangerously high seas. The men were subsequently transferred to Newfoundland-bound fishing vessel Katsheshuk which made it back to Harbour Grace days later.

It was an “awesome rescue” and highlights the key role that vessels of opportunity play in Arctic marine SAR. But it was also a very close call, and a hair-raising rescue for the crew given the sea state conditions at the time – 50 foot swells. At this time of the year, and without the ability of “vessels of opportunity” to respond, the outcome would certainly have been tragic. In this case, all the crew survived. However, both the owner and the master of the vessel have raised serious questions about Canada’s Arctic and offshore SAR capability. It remains unknown whether or not there was an RCAF SAR Cormorant helicopter based in Gander available.

Moving Forward
The above incidents illustrate “everyday” Arctic/West Coast search and rescue activities, which will be increasing in frequency as activity steadily grows in the North.

As can be seen by the roles played by the Greenland vessels and the commercial vessel operated by Fednav, a highly experienced Arctic operator which plies these waters on a regular basis, the age-old tradition of mariners helping mariners in ­distress, provided a solid foundation and successful SAR outcome. There is no doubt that this time-honoured tradition will continue. However, it is not enough, and it is the legal and moral responsibility of government to provide more, and more capable, resources to enhance the effectiveness of Canada’s SAR activities over waters and territories bordering its land mass, and in remote and hostile locations. For example, it shouldn’t take over more than a decade for new fixed-wing SAR aircraft to be chosen. The aircraft overflying Atlantic Charger were likely in excess of 30 years old. Icebreaker CCG Pierre Radisson is 37 years old. 

The people of Ahoushat have shown a new and renewed way forward on Canada’s SAR capability... use our First Nations people more effectively for a SAR capability.

Canada’s new government has made it very clear that action is required and is supported by federal leadership. We need to take a hard look at these issues and a variety of solutions such as those proposed by the Shipping Federation of Canada with respect to alternative procurement of icebreakers; of search and rescue; and empowering coastal communities. We need to set the stage for the highest probability of successful outcomes. It is a question of leadership. Canada’s new government is up to the challenge. 

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K. Joseph Spears, Principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, has been involved in SAR from an operational and policy perspective for many years. In 1980 he was involved in a successful multi-agency rescue involving CCG Pierre Radisson in Hudson Strait and the Canadian Forces. Joe can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com

© FrontLine Security 2015

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