A gray whale off the coast of Hat Island near Everett on Friday. (Christopher Hanke / Puget Sound Express)

A gray whale off the coast of Hat Island near Everett on Friday. (Christopher Hanke / Puget Sound Express)

Keep an eye out for Everett’s marine guests: two gray whales

The two whales stopped on their way to the Bering Sea to forage between Hat Island and Jetty Island.

EVERETT — The Sounders are in town.

Two gray whales, part of a group that visits Puget Sound annually known as “the Sounders,” are hanging out between Hat Island and Jetty Island off the coast of Everett.

The group of roughly a dozen whales is part of the larger population of the Eastern North Pacific gray whales. During their migration from Baja California up to the Bering sea, the Sounders break off to feed on ghost shrimp for two to three months, usually from March to May.

But the two whales have decided to extend their stay in Everett.

“It’s a very neat story that we’ve got these gray whales hanging around year after year,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, communications director for the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

The Sounders’ numbers grow each year as new whales join them.

Their presence is a welcome one after dozens of starving gray whales washed ashore along the Washington coast last summer, including one in Everett.

In the busy waters outside the Port of Everett, many private boaters don’t know to watch out for the marine guests.

Captain Christopher Hanke, who runs the Puget Sound Express out of Port Townsend and Edmonds, said his whale watching boats daily have to flag down private boaters on a collision-course with the whales.

“A lot of people just don’t know there’s whales out here,” Hanke said.

Bart Rulon, a naturalist on Puget Sound Express boats, said he witnessed a group of jet skiers in Possession Sound headed straight for the whales last week.

“We honked and honked and finally got their attention,” Rulon said.

It’s a common scenario.

“It’s something we do on a daily basis, stopping boaters from hitting whales,” he said.

Federal law requires boats to remain 100 yards from gray whales at all times.

Gray whales aren’t the only visiting marine animals to pass through Possession Sound in the summer.

Transient orcas also have been spotted in the area. Southern resident orcas have yet to make their annual appearance to feed in Possession Sound, which usually happens around September.

When they do arrive, local boaters will have to abide by a new set of more-stringent distancing rules passed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year. It requires vessels to remain 300 yards from either side of orcas and 400 yards in front or behind them. The law also requires reducing boat speed to seven knots within a half mile of marine life to cut down on engine noise.

Citations for breaking those rules range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, state Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 4 Law Enforcement Captain Alan Myers said.

Boaters in south Puget Sound recently drew media attention for harassing a pod of Orcas off Fox Island in the Tacoma Narrows.

But most private boats that get too close aren’t malicious, they just don’t know better, Hanke said.

Captains of his whale-watching vessels use a flag to catch the eye of oblivious boaters.

“If you see a big boat going slow, flying a white flag with red and orange colors behind the fluke of a humpback whale, slow down and look around,” Hanke said.

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

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