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.
And it was during his work with the Far East Russia Orca Project in 2010, that Hoyt spotted something super rare – a male white whale. Orcas usually boast a striking black-and-white color scheme. So it is no surprise that a pure-white specimen made the scientist sit up and pay attention.
Hoyt was fortunate enough to witness the white male orca swimming near the Kamchatka Peninsula on the extreme north-eastern edge of the Russia landmass. Furthermore, it became apparent that he was the first person on record to see such a whale. Hoyt wittily named the great white creature Iceberg, and the researcher was greatly excited about the discovery for two main reasons.
Obviously, the first thing that struck Hoyt was Iceberg’s distinctive coloration. According to an article from on Hoyt’s discovery in U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the chances of an orca being born white is one in 10,000. But the specific cause of this whale’s pale complexion is still unclear; it is thought most likely that Iceberg is either an albino or leucistic.
Indeed, there are subtle differences between the two hereditary mutations. Albinos have a lack of the dark pigment melanin in their skin, while leucistic animals are missing several different pigmentations. And while Iceberg’s pale-hued hulk is impressive, under the circumstances, the whale’s age is also remarkable.
Orcas enter adulthood when they reach the age of 15, and – judging by the condition of his dorsal fin – Iceberg was thought to be 18 when Hoyt first sighted him in 2012. This is significant because while white killer whales are rare, ones who have reached maturity are rarer still. It seems that, for whatever reason, most of these mutated orcas do not live past their childhood years. Indeed, Iceberg is the only known adult example currently on the planet.
In April 2012, Hoyt spoke to the BBC about his then recent discovery. “We’ve seen another two white orcas in Russia,” the scientist explained. “But they’ve been young, whereas this is the first time we’ve seen a mature adult.” Nevertheless, Hoyt also observed that Iceberg’s color did not seem to affect his social standing among the other orcas.
And it seemed to be a family affair. The Far East Russia Orca Project co-director continued, “Iceberg seems to be fully socialized. We know that these fish-eating orcas stay with their mothers for life. And, as far as we can see, he’s right behind his mother with presumably his brothers next to him.”
In fact, orcas often live in family units – called pods – and hunt collectively and efficiently together. In addition to the killer reputation, this behavior has earned the species the nickname “wolves of the sea.” And, while Hoyt mentioned how orcas eat fish, they do not constitute the entirety of the whales’ diet – they actually feed on a wide range of animals.
It turns out that orcas are extremely fond of snacking on cephalopods, including squid and octopus. However, the whales’ pod-pack hunting style allows them to target much larger food sources. Not only do orcas prey on mighty marine mammals, such as sperm whales, but not even the enormous blue whale is safe from these roving super-predators.
And it is not just aquatic creatures who should fear orcas – killer whales also hunt animals from beyond their watery confines. Researchers have reported observing them attacking deer caught swimming between islands in the whales’ territorial waters. Orcas are considered cunning “apex predators,” and thus fully deserving of their killer crown.
Nevertheless, orcas should not be thought of merely as mindless murderers. Indeed, they have been known to employ highly intelligent tactics to overwhelm their desired prey. In 2005, a captive orca held at MarineLand in Niagara Falls, Canada, was seen luring tasty seagulls out of the sky by cleverly using his vomit as bait. Professor Michael Noonan, an animal behaviorist at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, watched as the killer brought up partially digested fish on the surface of the water in his enclosure and then made quick work of the opportunistic scavengers who came to investigate. Interestingly, four of the orca’s fellow inmates copied the predator’s ploy when they saw how successful it was.
After the first encounter off the Kamchatka Peninsula, Hoyt and his team kept an eye on Iceberg until they lost track of him later in 2012. The white adult male remained below their metaphorical radar for three years until August 2015. The Far East Russia Orca Project personnel were pleased to report that Iceberg had resurfaced – seemingly safe and sound.
Moreover, Iceberg seemed to be enjoying life just as much as when Hoyt had first spotted him three years earlier. Futhermore, it was also revealed that researchers had spotted even more white killer whales in the Russian waters. A spokesperson for the organization elaborated on the discoveries in a 2016 Facebook update, alongside a possible explanation for the pale orcas’ presence.
In a post on the official Far East Russia Orca Project page, the representative wrote, “We’ve now recorded at least five and maybe up to eight different white killer whales. Russian waters appear to be the world’s number-one area for white killer whales who may be leucistic… or true albinos. It’s a dubious honor.”
The academics’ update continued, “As reported in our paper, albinism probably indicates inbreeding of small populations.” The publication in question was White Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in the Western North Pacific. This was a 2016 scientific survey which featured Iceberg and similar pale-pigmented members of his species. However, it transpired that the white orca mutations are by no means a recent occurrence.
Indeed, in the comments section below its update, the Far East Russia Orca Project spokesperson explained that it was “probably something that has occurred as a result of inbreeding over centuries.” But, regardless of the reason behind their ghostly presence, the project’s members were spotting more and more white orcas. And their number included a female whale who researchers codenamed CO210.
Subsequently, the Far East Russia Orca Project page stated that CO210 was “also known as Mama Tanya,” in tribute to the group’s photographic identification specialist, Tatiana Ivkovich. It was a fitting name, as apparently the Russian team member has very distinctive blonde hair. But it seemed that Mama Tanya was a bit like Iceberg in another respect – she proved to be similarly shy. In June 2018, a project representative took to Facebook again to report, “CO210 was encountered for the first time in 2009 and re-sighted several times in 2010, but then disappeared for a long time. We are happy to greet her again!”