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White Killer Whale Captivates Scientists Off Russian Coast

One of the photos taken by the researchers who first sighted the white orca, or killer whale, with fellow members of a pod off Kamchatka (FEROP photo by E.Lazareva)
One of the photos taken by the researchers who first sighted the white orca, or killer whale, with fellow members of a pod off Kamchatka (FEROP photo by E.Lazareva)
One-of-a-kind images have been shared from the icy waters off Russia's Far East, where scientists mindful of the threat to marine mammals there are trying to photographically and acoustically catalogue killer whales, or orcas.

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:

Our field season is coming to the end. FEROP expeditions are working in two locations -- in Avacha Gulf, Kamchatka and at the Commander Islands. The members of the Commander expedition had recently encountered an albino orca. It was a juvenile, which we had first photographed as a calf in 2008. We hope to meet one of the two other albino orcas before the end of the season -- a female we met in 2009-2010 and a large male encountered in 2010.

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:

"We've seen another two white orcas in Russia but they've been young, whereas this is the first time we've seen a mature adult," he told BBC News.

"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:

We'd have to agree with Melville that there is something unnatural about something so lacking in colour. Whiteness has connotations of disease and pathology, of bloodlessness and mutation. One might imagine such an animal to be the product of experimentation or genetic mutation – more especially if it happened to swim in the irradiated seas off Japan, newly contaminated after the Fukushima disaster and where radioactive caesium has been detected in minke whales. Critics writing in the 1940s saw Melville's White Whale reflected in the white mushroom cloud, and nuclear experiments in the same Pacific Ocean where Iceberg and Migaloo swim.

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.


Our orcas are now endangered. In recent years, Japanese and other aquariums have taken an interest in obtaining Russian orcas, due to the proximity of the orcas in waters due north of Japan, as well as the lack of protection for orcas in these waters. As has been shown in the Northwest US and Canada, population estimates for orcas before photo-ID research have always been much larger (3-5 times larger around Vancouver Island), while actual numbers through photo-ID prove to be far less. That and the peculiar biology of orcas -- with the long-lived social pods, and "populations" generally numbering from fewer than 100 to no more than 600 individuals throughout the eastern North Pacific -- are strong arguments against capturing them for aquariums. Yet quotas to capture orcas have been set every year since 2001 and two females were removed from the population (both died: one in the capture nets and one 13 days after transfer to the Utrish Dolphinarium) in September 2003.

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

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