September 2nd, 2016. “Iceberg,” an all-white male orca, was spotted after a four-year absence, according to the organization Russian Orcas.
“Iceberg is still travelling with his family of fish-eating orcas,” the organization wrote on Facebook, noting that its FEROP (Far East Russia Orca Project) team made the sighting.
Iceberg was first spotted off Russia’s Commander Islands in the North Pacific in 2010 by FEROP scientists and then seen again, in 2012. Believed to be about 22 years old now, he appeared healthy then — a member of a fish-eating pod, in contrast with some killer whale pods that chiefly dine on other marine mammals — though the nature of his all-white status was still up in the air. “We don’t even know if he is a true albino,” FEROP researcher Erich Hoyt told LiveScience in 2012.
Now, though, Iceberg has reappeared for the cameras, off Russia’s Kuril Islands, and it turns out he’s not the only white orca on the scene. FEROPS scientists have just published a paper in the journal Aquatic Mammals in which they document the existence of 5 to 8 other white orcas in Russian waters.
The scientists remain unsure of the reason for the orcas’ distinctive coloring, including that of Iceberg. True albinism is a genetic disorder that leaves the skin without pigmentation.
“Russian waters appear to be the world’s number one area for white killer whales who may be leucistic (patchy white pigmentation) or true albinos,” Russian Orcas noted on Facebook. “It’s a dubious honor. As reported in our paper, albinism probably indicates inbreeding of small populations.”
“Albinos or leucistic .. we’re not sure,” Hoyt wrote on social media.
An especially close-up look at the alabaster animals could help.
“With regard to Iceberg’s pod, we have no genetic data,” Hoyt wrote on whales.org after the 2012 sighting, “but we are hoping to meet them again in summer 2012 and learn more about the phenomenon of white whales, why they occur, what it means and whether Iceberg is a true albino — perhaps we can catch a glimpse of a pink eye — or ‘just’ one of the most beautiful orcas anyone has ever seen.”
Citation : White Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in the Western North Pacific. Filatova, Olga A. et al. Journal Aquatic mammals. Vol. 42, Iss. 3. p 350-356. Published : 25 August 2016.