The white killer whale spotted in Alaska's Aleutian Islands sent researchers and the ship's crew scrambling for their cameras.
The nearly mythic creature was real after all.
"I had heard about this whale, but we had never been able to find it," said Holly Fearnbach, a research biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle who photographed the rarity. "It was quite neat to find it."
The whale was spotted last month while scientists aboard the Oscar Dyson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ship, were conducting an acoustic survey of pollock near Steller sea lion haulout sites.
It had been spotted once in the Aleutians years ago but had eluded researchers since, even though they had seen many of the more classic black and white whales over the years.
Fearnbach said the white whale stood out.
"When you first looked at it, it was very white," she said Thursday.
Further observation showed that while the whale's saddle area was white, other parts of its body had a subtle yellowish or brownish color.
It likely is not a true albino given the coloration, said John Durban, a research biologist at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. That's probably a good thing — true albinos usually don't live long and can have health problems.
Durban said white killer whales have been spotted elsewhere in the area twice before: in 1993 in the northern Bering Sea around St. Lawrence Island and in 2001 near Adak in the central Aleutians. There have also been sightings along the Russian coast.
While Alaska researchers have documented thousands of black and white killer whales in the Bering Sea and the Aleutians during summer surveys, this was something new and exciting, Durban said.
"This is the first time we came across a white killer whale," he said.
The scientists observed several pods over a two-week period. The white whale was in a family group of 12 on a day when the seas were fairly rough. It was spotted about 2 miles off Kanaga Volcano on Feb. 23.
The ship stayed with the whale for about 30 minutes.
"Everybody actually came out and was taking pictures," Fearnbach said. "It was a neat sighting for everybody."
The whale appeared to be a healthy, adult male about 25 to 30 feet long and weighing upward of 10,000 pounds.