When the cream-colored fin was first seen breaking the ocean waves in 2012, the research scientist could not credit it. Could that really be an adult white killer whale, contrasting vividly with the blue water off the coast of Russia? No-one had ever spotted a mature specimen with that idiosyncratic coloring before. It was a wonderful moment to witness, but three years on from the sighting and the eager academic had not set eyes on the fantastical creature since.
Chasing the great white whale has been a metaphor for obsessive ambition ever since Herman Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851. But for some it is a very literal rather than literary pursuit, as with 67-year-old whale expert Erich Hoyt. However, whereas the creature who starred in Moby-Dick was a sperm whale, the Akron, Ohio, scientific researcher and conservationist’s main interest is the orca – or killer whale.
Hoyt is actually the co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project, which studies the Orcinus orca species in the oceans around the largest nation on Earth. Until the project’s initial mission in 1999, Russia’s orcas were largely overlooked by the global scientific community. However, thanks to the efforts of Hoyt’s initiative, humanity now has a better understanding of the great killer.