Passengers on the Yukon Queen, running between Haines and Skagway on Sunday, got a rare look at what appeared to be an albino porpoise.
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"It was pure white," engineer Tim Ackerman said. "It came up twice, and we didn't see it after that."
The sighting of the rare mammal, on an early morning run, intrigued federal fisheries officials who track unusual sightings as a way of monitoring the environment. It may not have been an albino, but a Pacific white-sided dolphin not usually seen in the area, they said.
"I don't think we've ever had a report of a white porpoise," said Aleria Jensen, marine mammal stranding coordinator with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sometimes tourists in the summer report unusual things, however.
"People have reported belugas, narwhals, sea monsters," she said.
Ackerman said the Yukon Queen's captain also saw the white porpoise.
"The skipper and I are both commercial fishermen," he said. "We've never seen anything like it."
The white porpoise appeared to be 8 to 10 feet long, with a completely white dorsal fin.
"It came up and went down, came up and went down, and we didn't see it any more after that," Ackerman said.
Mary Sternfeld at the National Marine Fisheries Service said there was a possibility that it wasn't an albino harbor porpoise of the type usually seen in the inside waters of northern Southeast, but instead a Pacific white-sided dolphin.
That dolphin, though, has substantial patches of black on it, and is a gregarious animal rarely seen alone. It is usually in groups ranging from tens to thousands of members, Sternfeld said. It also is not usually seen in inside waters.
Sternfeld and Jensen said they were hoping someone would get a longer look at the white animal, especially with a camera handy.
"We try to track unusual sightings," Jensen said. New or different species can be indications of climate change or other developments scientists want to know about.
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