British Columbia

Rare white orca sighted off Alaskan coast

A rare white orca was spotted off the southeast coast of Alaska earlier this month, creating excitement for researchers and whale watchers alike.

Only about 10 white killer whales have been recorded in history, marine biologist says

Marine biologist Stephanie Hayes said white orca colouration is caused by leucism, which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of skin, hair, feathers, or scales, but not eyes. (Stephanie Hayes)

A rare white orca spotted off the southeast coast of Alaska earlier this month is creating excitement for researchers and whale watchers as scientists believe there are only about five of the creatures in existence.

Stephanie Hayes, a marine biology PhD candidate with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a crew member with Alaska Sea Adventures, said only about 10 white orcas have been recorded in history. 

Because there are so few, there isn't a lot of information about them. Researchers believe white orcas are not albino, but instead the whiteness is caused instead by leucism, a condition that results in partial loss of pigmentation, which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of skin, hair, feathers, or scales, but not eyes.

Hayes was part of a group of people who noticed the animal while out looking for humpback whales. They came across a pod of orcas that began swimming around them.

One of the orcas appeared to glow beneath the water. Hayes said the orca's dorsal fin then broke the surface of the water.

"We knew immediately we were witnessing something special," she said. "It was a dream come true."

Hayes saw the orca again a few days later as it was hunting harbour seals. 

"I never thought in the thousand years that I would be watching one right in front of me or I would see one in my own waters," she said.

The orca has been named Tl'uk, a Coast Salish Halq'eméylem word for moon. It is estimated to be about two years old.

Anyone who spots a rare white orca should contact local researchers so they can record details about the sighting, researcher Stephanie Hayes said. (Stephanie Hayes)

Hayes said scientists believe white killer whales may be at a disadvantage when hunting, because their white glow gives them away when they're trying to creep up on prey. But the fact that this particular orca looked healthy and accepted in its pod is a good sign. 

Its pod, Hayes said, travels between Alaska and Oregon.

"To see this pod taking their youngest member out and showing them the extent of their territory is really exciting," she said.

Hayes said that anyone who spots the white orca and can snap a picture and record where they saw it should send the information to any local, relevant agencies so scientists can learn more about the rare animal, including basic facts about whether it stays healthy and whether its bright white colouration impedes its ability to be accepted by other pods.

"Scientists might see glimpses of them but [have] never had one so close to home where you can really watch it through its development," she said. 

"It would be really amazing to be able to answer basic questions about killer whales with leucism and just to be able to watch a wonderful pod grow."

With files from Nicole Oud and Radio West