SEATTLE, Wash. -- A boat hit a whale Sunday morning near Whidbey Island as whale watching vessels packed with spectators witnessed the entire incident.
The whale was a gray whale. It is one that has been spotted for many years in Puget Sound. It was swimming with a couple of other whales when a boat drove right over it. Witnesses say he stopped for a few "moments," then continued. The whale may have been the well-known "Patch," first photographed in the Puget Sound in the 1990s.
"We were watching the whales, and then this guy comes blowing through really fast," said Lisa Shannon, who was aboard San Juan Clipper. "We were all commenting, 'What's that guy doing.'"
The whale emerged from the water, and video shows the whale knocking the boat out of the water.
"It looked like he was headed straight for the whale, and he was, and he hit it, and we were just shocked," Shannon said. "He hit the whale at full speed. It seemed like he sped up to get through the boats like they were in his way."
A naturalist aboard the San Juan Clipper boat took pictures of the vessel operator. Those were sent to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with the video. Wildlife agents were able to track the boater down. WDFW says they've taken a statement from the driver and he was cooperating with their investigation of the incident.
The three whales were: 49 (also known as "Patch"), 22 and 383. They are three of the 10 or 11 gray whales that come to Puget Sound nearly every year.
"We're going to be vigilant about the well-being of these whales. We're working with Cascadia Research. They're with us a couple times a week," Cpt. Scott Jacobson with San Juan Clipper.
It's impossible to tell if the whale has internal injuries, and it will likely be weeks before anyone knows for sure if it will survive.
Two hundred people aboard the San Juan Clipper were listening to naturalist Stephanie Raymond when the boat hit.
"My response was, 'Did I just see that happen?'" Raymond recounted. "I've never seen this happen before. I've never seen a boat strike a whale."
Whale watching and conservation groups plan to monitor the whales. They say it's a painful reminder to all boaters to slow down in whale territory.
"These guys are big and slower, and they're used to boats but when someone comes in at a speed like that, and they're big, 40-foot animals, it's hard for them to get out of the way," said San Juan Clipper Captain Jason Mihok. "If there are whale watching boats, you need to slow or stay out of the area."