At least 20 feet in length, “it was longer than our boat,” she said. “The fin was enormous.”
From a distance, her father, John Coale, thought it might be a sea lion. But as the slow-moving creature grew closer, it became apparent that what was swimming just off the bow was a basking shark, an extremely rare thing to see in Puget Sound.
“It was so big — so big — that there wasn't anything else it could be,” said John Coale, who has worked as a commercial fisherman.
His daughter, an Edmonds Community College student, said she rushed to the bow of the boat and leaned over to take pictures. Their identification of the basking shark was later confirmed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in La Jolla, California.
“It's definitely a positive identification — I saw the photos myself,” said Owyn Snodgrass, a fisheries biologist for the federal agency.
The population of basking sharks has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, he said. Although the sharks can be found from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula to British Columbia, “it's quite a rare occasion to see one, unfortunately,” Snodgrass said.
Scientists know very little about them, such as how far they migrate.
That's why sightings are so important to scientists, said Heidi Dewar, who works with Snodgrass as a fisheries research biologist.
“Because they're such a rare occurrence, there's no way we could do surveys for them,” she said. “Our best source of information is public sightings at this point.”
Basking sharks are filter feeders, with modified sieves that allow them to feed on the surface where currents bring together water from various sources, Dewar said. Washington waters are rich sources of the food they consume, such as tiny, shrimp-like creatures.
Reports of the sighting may have attracted even more than the usual amount of attention, coming during the Discovery Channel's “Shark Week.”
But don't associate those images from “Jaws” with the basking shark. “They pretty much try to avoid people,” Dewar said. “We have nothing that they want. They would like us to stay away from them.”
The basking shark spotted by the Coales on Saturday stayed near their boat for about 15 minutes. It generally stayed about 100 yards off shore.
John Coale said that if he had a snorkel mask with him, he might have jumped into the water to take a look. “I'll probably never have that chance again,” he said.
His daughter called the unexpected chance for an up-close look at a basking shark surreal. “It's a gentle, important creature,” she said. “I'm really glad to see there's at least one in Puget Sound.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public can help scientists gather information on basking sharks by reporting their sightings to 858-334-2884. Information that is useful: the date and time of the sighting, the latitude and longitude or general region of the sighting, estimated length, number, its behavior and, if available, the water temperature.
About the basking shark
- They can reach 33 feet in length, the second-largest shark species.
- They have large gill slits, a pointed snout, a mottled dark-gray to brown coloration.
- They are commonly found in coastal temperate water where tidal convergence allows them to feed on small fish, fish eggs and small shrimp-like creatures about the size of a grain of rice.
- They can swim great distances, such as from New England to Brazil. A California basking shark was electronically monitored and later surfaced near Hawaii.
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