The images, from the Far East Russian Orca Project (FEROP), are being touted as the first ever of a pure-white, mature orca. He's seen frolicking beside what researchers suspect are his siblings and possibly his mother:
It's not the first time that a white killer whale has been observed. The same project saw at least three others between 2008 and 2010, according to a logbook entry from August 25, 2011:
But this latest sighting is special because of the telltale fin jutting up out of the water, according to FEROP's Erich Hoyt, an orca specialist, author, and senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) who told BBC:
"It has the full two-metre-high dorsal fin of a mature male, which means it's at least 16 years old -- in fact the fin is somewhat ragged, so it might be a bit older."
The white orca's been dubbed "Iceberg" by researchers, who usually spot differences among individuals through less subtle external differences -- including notches and other identifying features of fins and other markings -- and by the clicks, whistles, and vocalizations that they use for echolocation and, almost certainly, communication.
It's the latest great white cetacean to capture the world's imagination, after Migaloo, the white humpback whale "of Australia" that spawned a dedicated website and an exclusion zone for its protection.
But the best-known white whale is, of course, the mighty and "appalling" protagonist that stove the whaling vessel, the "Pequod," in Herman Melville's seminal American novel "Moby-Dick."
Author Philip Hoare dedicated many pages in his book, "The Whale: In Search Of The King Of The Deep," to the literary world's most famous marine mammal. In the "Comment is Free" section of "The Guardian," he has also offered some thoughts on the uneasiness that surrounds Moby Dick's and Iceberg's whiteness:
In Melville's canonical work, Ishmael describes the indelible mark that the dark-souled Captain Ahab's fluked white rival left on the narrator as "endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air."
But while that sperm whale was all about fear and vengeance and the unknown, this one's all about conservation and a group of U.S., Russian, and Japanese researchers' efforts to save a nearly perfect natural predator from death or captivity.
There is still much to learn in order to understand the [Russian Far East] orca populations and we hope that our study will help to save them from capturing.
-- Andy Heil