The killer whale, or orca, is one of those animals with an unmistakable color pattern that cannot fool even an uninitiated person. But now, researchers have taken pictures of a white killer whale near the Aleutian Islands (western Alaska). The beast of the myths turned into reality.
"I had heard about this whale, but we had never been able
to find it. It was quite neat to find it," said Holly Fearnbach, a biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, in Seattle, who took pictures of the rare mammal.
The animal was detected in February 2008, while a team aboard the Oscar Dyson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ship, was making an acoustic survey of pollock near Steller sea lion haulout sites. In fact, the white orca was observed once several years ago in the same area, but it proved extremely elusive.
"The white whale stood out. When you first looked at it, it was very white," said Fearnbach.
While the whale's saddle area appeared white, other body parts had a subtle yellowish or brownish hue, thus the animal produces some amount of skin pigment.
"It likely is not a true albino given the coloration. That's probably a good thing - true albinos usually don't live long and can have health problems," said John Durban, a research biologist at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center, in Seattle.
"White killer whales have been spotted elsewhere in the area twice before: in 1993 in the northern Bering Sea around St. Lawrence Island and in 2001 near Adak in the central Aleutians. There have also been sightings along the Russian coast.
While Alaska researchers have documented thousands of black and white killer whales in the Bering Sea and the Aleutians during summer surveys, this was something new and exciting. This is the first time we came across a white killer whale," said Durban.
The white individual belonged to a family group of 12 and it was spotted about 2 miles (3.2 km) off Kanaga Volcano on Feb. 23, on rough sea. The researchers could observe the white orca for about 30 minutes. It was a healthy adult male about 25 to 30 ft (8-10 m) long and weighing about 10,000 pounds (4.5 tonnes). Despite their name, killer whales are not whales (not even "toothed whales"), but oversized dolphins. That's right, the largest of all...