Snorkelers diving on the Great Barrier Reef spotted a rare Omura's whale but had no idea they were looking at what many consider the world's most elusive whale.
The Reef Express, a snorkel tour company out of Mission Bay in Queensland, Australia, captured video of the whale and sent photos around the country to learn the exact species.
But it wasn't until the footage was sent to experts in Madagascar that it was identified as an Omura's whale, making it the first sighting of such a whale in the Great Barrier Reef, according to the Australian Associated Press and The Cairns Post.
"This species is rarely seen," Chris Jones, the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority sightings network manager, told AAP. "It's so rare we needed to track down an expert to confirm the identify of this enigmatic whale."
The existence of the Omura's whale was only first formally identified in 2003 by Japanese researchers.
In October 2015, a team of whale biologists led by Dr. Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium found the largest aggregation of the rare whales off Madagascar and captured the first-ever confirmed video of live Omura's whales in the wild.
The next month they made 80 individual sightings, which was nearly double the combined entire research record from the previous four years.
Omura’s whales sport a signature two-toned jaw: white on the right side and black on the left. And at 33 to 38 feet in length, they’re also slightly smaller.
Late last week, tourists in Queensland’s Port Douglas reported a possible Omura’s whale sighting, so the likely explanation is that we’re looking at the same individual. If this is confirmed, the whale (shown here near Mission Beach) has made a 200-kilometer journey in the past several days.
There’s no doubt that the whale’s Australian visit is exciting – but it’s also not entirely surprising. The 1,400-mile Great Barrier Reef sits along the South Pacific’s Coral Sea, and nearby regions of the West Pacific are known territory for Omura’s whales. Still, each encounter represents an important pin on the whales’ largely blank range map.
Jones told AAP that "citizen scientists" are helping with the research and knowledge of the Omura's whale.
"We encourage anyone out on the water to report the sightings they see through our sightings network," Jones said. "You never know when you might discover something ground breaking."