National Geographic News
A white orca in a pod.
The white whale behind another orca, likely his mother, in April. Males remain in matriarchal pods for life.

Photograph courtesy E. Lazareva, Far East Russia Orca Project

An all-white orca.

Iceberg the orca on his own. Photograph courtesy E. Lazareva, Far East Russia Orca Project.

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published April 25, 2012

The headline-grabbing all-white adult killer whale spotted off Russia this month may well be one of a kind. But the sighting may not be the first time he's been caught on camera.

Scientists were studying acoustic and social interactions among whales and dolphins off the North Pacific's Commander Islands (map) when the team noticed a six-foot-tall (nearly two-meter-tall) white dorsal fin jutting above the waves—hence the whale's new name: Iceberg.

"The reaction from the team for the encounter, which happened on an ordinary day for spotting and photographing the whales, was one of surprise and elation," researcher Erich Hoyt said via email. Though he wasn't aboard the boat, Hoyt co-directs the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), which had organized the expedition.

Though Iceberg's moniker is new, he may be the same killer whale scientists spotted in 2000 and 2008 in Alaska's Aleutian Islands (map), Holly Fearnbach, a research biologist at the University of Aberdeen in the U.K., said by email.

For one thing, Iceberg and the previously seen whales look very similar, Fearnbach said.

Furthermore, each of the three white whale sightings were among about a dozen family members, all bearing the typical black-and-white pattern, Fearnbach said.

And it wouldn't be odd for Iceberg to have made the Russia-to-Alaska crossing. Fish-eating North Pacific killer whales have been observed migrating more than 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers). Their mammal-eating cousins cover smaller ranges.

The whale seen in 2000 and 2008 was darker and more mottled than Iceberg, FEROP's Hoyt noted, though the coloring can change seasonally due to algae on the skin, "which would tend to make a white animal look darker."

Overall, Aberdeen's Fearnbach said, "it is highly possible they are the same whales—but we cannot be certain until a match is confirmed" by closely analyzing photographs of the three sightings.

(See "'White,' Albino-like Penguin Found in Antarctica.")

White Whale a Mystery

The 22-foot-long (7-meter-long) Iceberg is probably not a true albino, since he has color on his saddle—the area behind his dorsal fin—FEROP's Hoyt said.

"Iceberg may or may not be an albino. We really don't know," said Hoyt, also a senior research fellow at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

One way to find out would be to see if Iceberg's eyes are pink and unpigmented—a sure sign of albinism, Hoyt said. (See pictures of albino animals.)

Scientists have observed other killer whales with a condition called Chediak-Higashi syndrome, a rare disease of the immune and nervous system that affects coloration, Fearnbach said.

But most animals affected with Chediak-Higashi don't survive to adulthood, meaning it's unlikely Iceberg—a mature male of at least 16 years—has the disease. The male seen in 2000 and 2008, if different from Iceberg, also didn't have the disease.

"I do not know a lot about other genetic conditions that may cause such light pigmentation, but hopefully he will be seen again and we can collect a genetic sample," Fearnbach said.

Iceberg Healthy, Handsome

Whatever his condition, "we can see that he is a healthy-looking male, a handsome, robust member of his fish-eating pod, so we can presume that his coloration doesn't affect him in a negative way," FEROP's Hoyt said. (Some killer whale pods eat mammals, but Iceberg's group appears to stick solely to fish.)

(See whale pictures.)

In general, "finding a beautiful animal like Iceberg shows us that there are still great surprises to be found in the least visited parts of the ocean," Hoyt added.

"I would hope that Iceberg would help motivate people not only to save whales but to save their habitat, their homes in the sea."

4 comments
Paul S
Paul S

Another wild story, is that we were hunting Belugas at the same location and ran into a very odd situation. Typically a Beluga would be shot once in the blow whole, then harpooned, then the whale would die fairly quickly, grab the ropes and tow it to shore.  The Inuit take it seriously and do not want the animals to suffer, use most of the whale and pride themselves on not wasting.  So, we had harpooned one in the river while the tide was low, then shot it a few times and it still was not dying, it was very unusual.  We continued to follow it out into the Hudson Bay, continually shooting it, following it, shot it no less than 50 times (but felt like 100 times?) with high powered rifles, we were all so confused as to why this whale would not die. This went on for hours, we were really far from shore, the shore was starting to fade, we were so far.  The hunters were so perplexed, demoralized, and worried about the whale who was suffering, dragging ropes that had floats attached.  We were loosing hope but couldn't let it go. The boat was still just floating there, and about 100 feet away the whale dove down and swam deep.  I remember leaning over the side, looking through the shadow on the water to see if I could see where it was going.  It went straight down, super far till I could only see a speck, then started to come back up and get larger and larger.  It felt like it was going to come straight up and hit us but it actually ended up surfacing for air about 50 feet beside us, grabbed some air, then dove under and swam towards us.  I think we all new what was going to happen next as we grabbed on to the boat, the whale bumped us up from underneath as it swam past. The boat cracked and began to leak a bit but we were OK.  That was it, we decided to head back, partly because I was REALLY cold and not dressed enough for this epic mission, any longer and possible hypothermia.  Also, because we were almost completely out of bullets.  When we got back to camp, we sat in the tent and told the story about what had happened.  My grandmother (full Inuit) was outraged. She then told us about the legend of the Great Whale (immortal spirit whale).  She was upset that her family had not recognized the Great Whale, and that we should have known not to offend and hunt it, especially since we were from Kuujjuarapik (Great Whale River).  We then apologized for our actions in a sort of ceremony.  Telling this story, I now remember that this happened when I was around 1987, not around 1992.  More to the story but trying to make a story short (haha) 

Paul S
Paul S

Around 1992 in the Hudson Bay, camping/hunting with Inuit, we witnessed 2 of these white whales attack and kill a beluga whale.  I presume they were a mother and child.  Only 2, no other whales in sight, other than hundreds of Belugas, like a highway.  They were a solid light grey and I remember thinking the fin resembled a sharks fin, yet they were whales.  We were within 200 feet of them standing on the bank of a river watching the drama unfold.   It has always been a mystery what species these whales were, but now I am convinced that they must have been Albino Orcas.  I didn't know of any other whales that feed on Belugas, anyone?.  Too bad we didn't have a camera!

Kathleen Hubbard
Kathleen Hubbard

What a wonderful discovery!  This is one of the reasons I love National Geographic so much because I learn something new every time I visit the site!  Iceberg is beautiful and we can only hope that no one will be foolish enough to want him for a trophy! 

MBOGO MWENDA
MBOGO MWENDA

Well, that's amazing to say the least. It's like spotting a zebra with no stripes!!

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