Rare basking shark spotted in Sound near Edmonds

EDMONDS — Grace Coale and her father were crabbing and fishing for salmon late Saturday afternoon near here when they spotted something swimming nearby.

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; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Report sightings

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.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

More in Local News

State: Secret deal endangers Marysville Strawberry Festival

The “bizarre” agreement promises a former leader up to $175,000 if the group fails to meet his demands.

Former jail guards sentenced in dehydration death of inmate

During a mental health crisis in 2015, Keaton Farris, 25, wasted away in the Island County Jail.

County Council grills Sound Transit CEO about long timeline

West Seattle and Ballard light-rail extensions will be completed before the main spine to Everett.

‘We don’t know why he left’: Teen has been missing for 2 years

Interest in the case of Tyler Christensen, of the Edmonds area, has recently surged on the internet.

Talks to begin on emergency radio system contract

Motorola Solutions Inc. has been chosen to build a replacement for the current 911 radio system.

Mountlake Terrace woman in coma after random, vicious attack

The suspect allegedly confessed, saying he had no explanation for his actions.

Traffic circles going in on Second Street in Marysville

The work follows complaints from residents about people driving too fast down the street.

ECEAP expanding but not quick enough for program’s demand

The 1,000 spots opening for next school year are less than half of what was sought.

420’s long, strange trip to pot holiday began in California

It began with a group of 5 friends who dubbed themselves “The Waldos.”

Most Read