A project to catalogue and ultimately protect whales, dolphins, and porpoises in waters off the Russian Far East has enthralled people all over the globe with images of a pure white killer whale, or orca, nicknamed "Iceberg."
The Far East Russian Orca Project (FEROP) believes its observers from Moscow and St. Petersburg who shot the video and accompanying pictures of the animal were the first scientists in history to glimpse "an adult all-white, probably albino, orca bull."
We already wrote here
about some of the circumstances of Iceberg's sudden appearance on the world stage.
But now we've turned for more information to a co-leader of the FEROP project, Dr. Erich Hoyt
-- an orca specialist and author of numerous books including "Orca: The Whale Called Killer" and "Creatures of the Deep" and senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).
Here's a portion of that e-mail interview with Hoyt, followed by more insight into FEROP's conservation campaign:
RFE/RL: I noticed that in an August 2011 entry there are references to albino orcas, and even to "a large male encountered in 2010"...
Erich Hoyt: We first saw Iceberg in August 2010 and we have only seen him once since then. We hoped to get more pictures, video and recordings in 2011 so we kept the photos quiet. Now we are heading out in 2 weeks to try to find him and his pod, and do our studies, and so we decided to announce it and release the photos now.
This [is] the first all-white male killer whale we have found. I have worked off the west coast of Canada with killer whales beginning in 1973, and as co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project since 1999. We have seen two other white young orcas in Russia only in that period. The amazing thing about Iceberg is that he is a mature male so he has survived at least 16 years and is apparently healthy, and not an outcast or anything but travelling with his pod of 13.
RFE/RL: What causes such nearly unique coloration?
Hoyt: We don't know. We don't even know if he is an albino or partial albino. We hope to get a glimpse of the eye to see if it is pink.
RFE/RL: And might different conditions lead to it? (In other words, is there one kind of "albinism" or is Checiak-Higashi one form among various possible conditions? And how would ascertaining eye color help, as the BBC article suggested?)
Hoyt: The pink eye, absence of pigment, would be characteristic of albinism. But we are not experts in albinism (only in killer whales), so if we do a paper on albinism we will collaborate with some expert in this field generally with other mammals.
RFE/RL: Are there assumed survival challenges to such animals, whether because they've lost their camouflage, attractiveness as mates, or any other factors?
Hoyt: I suspect with Iceberg it is just the roll of the dice that happens whenever mating occurs. There is variation and this would be at an extreme. It is tempting to think that if a number of these animals were produced over time and did well, either because they were more adapted to stealth against their prey in the Arctic, or something like that, then it could become more common, but this would only happen over thousands and thousands of years, especially considering the low birth rate and longevity of the killer whale. Or it could be the contrary, too, that whiteness makes it stand out to predators. But in the case of orcas they don't have predators. The key thing we can say is that the animal is apparently fully accepted by its pod, travelling with it.
RFE/RL: Is it possible to find out the reason for such coloration, outside of biopsies or necropsies?
Hoyt: Probably those are the best tools as they allow genetic work. But we would also learn a lot by recording the pod, which we plan to do, as that will tell us if they belong to one of the 3 clans we know that have overlapping dialects (each pod has it own dialect, but shares sounds/calls with pods within its clan and community).
RFE/RL: Is there any reason to believe that there's a larger proportion/number of such white orcas in these Russian waters, or are these sightings likely a result of the extensiveness of your project?
Hoyt: Hard to say. Even just seeing 3 is higher than the odd one that has been found elsewhere in the past.
We have photo-identified more than 1,500 orcas in an area over all of eastern Kamchatka, the Commanders and a bit of the Kuril Islands, but there are surely several thousand in all of eastern Russia though we don't know how many. It is a vast area.... But surely our work covering this never before studied area for killer whales has resulted in these new sightings of white individuals over the past decade.
FEROP's organizers fear that the orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family, and other cetaceans in the area are especially vulnerable to capture or death despite inhabiting waters in and around Russia's largest marine reserve.
Their plan is to use visual and acoustic evidence to identify individual orcas and their social units, and to allow for their classification as either "resident" or "transient" orcas for protection purposes as plans take shape to expand that marine reserve.
"The conclusions will have strong implications for the conservation of the species," Moscow State University biologist Dr. Olga Filatova says in a FEROP statement. "If they can be shown to be two species, which many think they probably are, then each one will require a separate conservation plan with potentially greater concern and benefits for both species."
Among the threats that FEROP cites to the area's marine mammals are "local overfishing in some areas and increased oil and gas exploration, which poses a threat to marine mammals from increasing noise levels, ship traffic, and potential oil spills. As noise levels increase, the ability of whales to communicate over long distances may be compromised."
(For a great introduction to the adverse effects of human-produced sound on whales, listen to Peter Tyack on the topic here.)
The group's Japanese, Russian, and U.S. researchers and conservationists say they "hope that the uniqueness of Iceberg will contribute towards awareness for the need to protect orcas and other cetacean species in the region."
-- Andy Heil