White Killer Whales: Legend, Myth, Or Real?

White Killer Whales were once the stuff of myths and legends but that's no longer the case. In fact, more of them are popping up in Russian waters.

White Killer Whales were once the stuff of myths and legends but that’s no longer the case. 

White killer whale
Iceberg Out At Sea With Another “Normal” Color Killer Whale( Photo: Olga Filatova, Far East Russisa Orca Project)

A little over 6 years ago, while working on a project in the western North Pacific whale researchers noticed a very unusual creature. It was a white male killer whale or orca whale.

They nicknamed this phenomenal dolphin “Iceberg” because of the way his white dorsal fin stuck out of the water.

But just a couple of days later they were in for another surprise: The same dolphin reappeared in a large pod of killer whales and there was another orca just like him!

You may wonder what’s so strange about that until you realize that this is a very rare creature indeed. In fact, Iceberg is the first documented evidence in modern times that all-white adult orcas actually exist.

Strangely, over the last few years since the initial sighting of this beautiful and spectacular looking creature, researchers have sighted even more white killer whales in the same waters.

Here are some facts and what we know so far about the extremely rare and elusive white killer whales.

Also scroll down for a video that shows this breathtaking animal out at sea.

Researchers assumed Iceberg had died until they spotted him again in 2015 after several years of no sightings.

White Killer Whales: Very Rare Indeed

Now that the white killer whales are being sighted on and off for the past decade or so, scientists are beginning to wonder what might have caused an increase in these sightings.

Although white killer whales are likely no different from the ordinary orcas, scientists are yet to extract DNA samples that will confirm that for sure. For now, researchers believe that this condition is probably caused by albinism.

Some of the specific traits of albinos is that they cannot produce any color pigments. Hence they remain white with pink, unpigmented eyes.

Now, even though albinism is a natural phenomenon and occurs in all vertebrates, it is very rare in killer whales. And unlike other animals, orcas have never been known for this strange condition till the team spotted the 7 meter (22 feet) long dolphin, Iceberg.

Below is a video of Iceberg, the first adult white killer whale. Uploaded to Youtube by Slate Magazine.

Why Are White Killer Whales Becoming More Common?

Interestingly, researchers have spotted even more of these breathtaking creatures. As a matter of fact, at the last count they documented between 5 to 8 of these white killer whales.

What makes this find so perplexing and unique is the fact that white killer whales have not been recorded in any other part of the world in modern times. In fact, these sea mammals are the stuff of legends: virtually unseen anywhere else on Earth.

However, intriguing as it may sound, this could be an indication of a very serious problem: Inbreeding.

Dangers of inbreeding:

Iceberg: White Killer Whales
Iceberg With His Dorsal Fin Sticking Out Of The Water (Photo: E. Lazareva, Far East Russia Orca Project)

According to Erich Hoyt co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project “What we are seeing is strange. It’s a very high rate of occurrence.”

The rate of occurence in this area comes to about 1 white killer whale per 1,000. In other areas worldwide it’s zero.

Unfortunately, as mentioned before, researchers have not been lucky to get samples from these creatures to determine if they are true albinos or not.

If indeed these killer whales are white due to inbreeding, their health may suffer. Albinism occurs more frequently when mammal populations are inbred.

The only other “white” orca ever held studied in captivity was a female albino whale called Chimo. She suffered from a type of albinism associated with steadily poor health and a reduced lifespan. As a result, she lived for only about 4 years.

 Iceberg is the first documented adult white killer whale in modern times and the most popular one to date. He was spotted in Russian waters in April 2012.

Excellent Preservation

Despite concerns about inbreeding, albinism, and its side effects, Iceberg appears to be relatively healthy. In fact, going by sightings of this animal, he should be over 20 years old by now and therefore the first to ever live to adulthood.

In any case, the situation of the white killer whales in the western North Pacific could be due to some other factor not yet explained. Meaning they are not albinos but just white.

Also, Iceberg has some color behind his dorsal fin so he may not be a true albino after all.

Another angle to this issues is that owing to the digitization of the research world, we could be encountering more of these dolphins in a way that wasn’t possible in past centuries. Hence, there may have been reports of these animals in the past but all remained unconfirmed and out of sight.

If indeed Iceberg and his kind are white and not albinos, then this may qualify as one of the major scientific finds of this century.

For now, Iceberg has become a source of fascination for both the general public and the scientists.

With the invention of drone cameras, satellite imaging and high resolution cameras, it’s likely there are going to be more sightings of these remarkably beautiful and unique white killer whales in the future.

 

References:

1. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/white-killer-whale-russia-animals-science-albino/

2. https://www.victoriawhalewatching.com/2016/12/21/white-whales/

3. https://www.newscientist.com/-white-killer-whales-were-a-legend-now-they-are-everywhere/

Video Link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86sllhIgnEc

Photo Credits:

Far East Russia Orca Project

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