Iceberg the white orca has resurfaced in the Russian Far East. First sighted in early 2012, he captured worldwide media interest as white cetaceans were extremely rare. After that time, despite constant monitoring for him, he had not been spotted since then – till now.
“He’s alive and healthy, still travelling with his family of 13 orcas,” said Erich Hoyt, a marine biologist in the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC) and co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP). Iceberg is estimated to be at least 22 years old, which is considered middle-aged for an orca.
However, Iceberg isn’t the only all-white orca the FEROP team has spotted. An article in the current issue of Aquatic Mammals journal describes how the team saw five to eight white orcas in the Russian North Pacific, specifically at Kamchatka and the offshore islands. The orcas, which comprised males, females and calves, were all from different pods.
The waters of Russia are home to the largest known density of white orcas in the world. Statistically, every thousandth orca is white. In contrast, a white orca has never been seen in the Antarctica, where the world’s largest orca population is found. Generally, in mammals, the ratio of white mammals is 1:10,000, and the ratio for people in Western Europe is 1:20,000.
According to Hoyt, as orca populations are relatively small and have a low genetic diversity, it was not surprising to witness higher instances of individuals who are albinos but may be leucistic. “In terms of management, this highlights how vulnerable killer whales are not only to environmental and human-caused factors but also to the internal mutation load which can become a significant threat in small imbred populations,” he continued.
“Such findings and extraordinary rare sightings remind us of the importance of protecting these amazing marine mammals,” said Nicolas Entrup, consultant to the international marine conservation organisation OceanCare. “The efforts by the team of young Russian scientists at FEROP need to be congratulated, as they not only contribute to research, but promote the concept of protected areas in Russian waters despite growing pressure from amusement parks to continue capturing orcas in this region.”
Since 2012, at least 16 orcas had been caught in Russian waters and taken away from their family groups.
Since 2000, FEROP has been operating along the coast of Kamchatka, northern Kuril Island and Commander Islands. Over the years, more than 1,500 orcas have been identified and placed under observation. As a result, the team has obtained important insights into the development of orca dialects and the use of different sounds to communicate with one another over short and long distances. In addition, they had recorded rare sightings of North Pacific right whales, contributed to the discovery of a new species of beaked whale.
Further information: www.russianorca.com