Orcas are known to many as killer whales. They are black and white and have been made famous by parks like SeaWorld. Shamu, is a killer whale and if the documentary BlackFish has taught us anything, it is that these guys belong in the water. Many orcas have been spotted in the waters off of Russia’s Kuril Islands. They are unique because they’re white. The rareness of these low pigmented animals has created a certain amount of hype. The only white adult orca that was spotted has been dubbed Iceberg. He has been seen a few times in the same region. There are four younger whales alongside him.
The whale that has been spotted is 22 years old and is part of an extremely rare sect of whales: white orcas. One in 10,000 killer whales are completely white and researchers have said that in Antarctic Waters there are many orca pods. There aren’t many pods in the Southern Ocean and fortunately observers have been tracking and following the pods to the Northern Hemisphere and have found the pod of white whales for some time. According to a study in the Journal of Aquatic Mammals, the appearance of white whales isn’t good news. Whether they are albino orcas or not isn’t the case. Patchy white pigments are signals of reduced heat absorption and frigid waters. This makes it harder for the orcas to camouflage themselves from predators. They have a high sensitivity to sunlight and their white color can impede the animals from communicating with others in their species.
This is also a sign that this pod is becoming inbred. The Far East Russia Orca Project specializes in this group and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature told The Independent that having five to eight of these guys in one area is an indication that there are inbreeding issues in that area. It isn’t clear that inbreeding is happening, but many of these white orcas have been captured by humans. Some are in aquariums and others are being captured for other reasons, because of their rarity they are more desired by hunters and poachers.
The white hue is said to be caused by something called Chediak-Higashi syndrome. It is a genetic disorder that causes albinism. These whales are also subjected to respiratory infections and nervous system issues. The captive white orca named Chimo had this issue and died at four years old. Many scientists are trying to find out the cause of the albinism, so that they can help the white species die out and not pass on the issues to the next generations of whales. The older whale in the pack, Iceberg is 22 and might be passing down some of his traits to the next generation. Researchers last saw the whale when he was 15 or 16. This means that a significant amount of time has passed and the whale has transitioned into adulthood.
There around 50,000 orcas currently in the wild and they are significantly endangered. The marine ecosystems are in jeopardy and many of the whales in captivity live for far less time than those out in the wild. There are 56 whales in captivity. Wild whales can live past 60, captive ones rarely reach 12. Iceberg can live for another 40 years easy. The world’s oldest living orca named Granny, was spotted in “high spirits” off the coast of Washington State. She is 105 years old!