Russian scientists have made what they believe to be the first sighting of an adult white orca, also known as killer whale.
The adult male, which scientists have nicknamed Iceberg, was spotted off the coast of Kamchatka in eastern Russia.
Iceberg appears to be healthy and leading a normal life in its pod.
White whales of various species are occasionally seen; but the only known white orcas have been young, including one with a rare genetic condition that died in a Canadian aquarium in 1972.
The sightings were made during a research cruise off Kamchatka by a group of Russian scientists and students, co-led by Erich Hoyt, the long-time orca scientist, conservationist and author who is now a senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).
“We’ve seen another two white orcas in Russia but they’ve been young, whereas this is the first time we’ve seen a mature adult,” said Dr. Eric Hoyt.
“It has the full two-metre-high dorsal fin of a mature male, which means it’s at least 16 years old – in fact the fin is somewhat ragged, so it might be a bit older.”
Russian scientists have made what they believe to be the first sighting of an adult white orca, also known as killer whale
Orcas mature around the age of 15, and males can live to 50 or 60 years old, though 30 is more commonplace.
“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,” said Dr. Eric Hoyt.
The cause of his unusual pigmentation is not known. The captive white orca, Chima, suffered from Chediak-Higashi syndrome, a genetic condition that causes partial albinism as well as a number of medical complications.
It is possible that an attempt may be made to take a biopsy from Iceberg; but with researchers reluctant to do so unless there is a compelling conservation reason, they are hoping instead for closer observations including a detection of eye color.
The project Dr. Eric Hoyt co-leads, the Far East Russia Orca Project, has pioneered visual and acoustic monitoring in the inhospitable Kamchatka seas, and has produced a number of papers on the communication of killer whales.
This may lead to improved understanding of the animals’ complex social structure, which includes matrilineal family clans, pods consisting of several families, and much larger “super-pods”.
A related project aims to study and conserve habitat for all whales and dolphins around the Russian coast.
In recent years a white humpback whale nick-named Migaloo has drawn intense interest in Australia, while the Arctic beluga is naturally white.
The most famous white whale, though, is the fictional sperm whale that drove Captain Ahab to his eventually fatal fury in Moby Dick.
A US judge is considering a complaint by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against SeaWorld claiming that five killer whales at its marine parks are treated like slaves because they’re forced to live in tanks and perform daily.
The case, which went to court Monday, could determine whether animals enjoy the same constitutional protection against slavery as human beings.
The five whales – Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka, and Ulises – have been named as the plaintiffs in the case. Attorney Jeffery Kerr is representing them and argues that SeaWorld is violating their 13th amendment, which prohibits slavery.
It is reportedly the first time a US court has heard legal arguments over whether animals should enjoy the same constitutional protections as humans.
SeaWorld’s legal team said the case was a waste of time and resources.
The marine park’s lawyer, Theodore Shaw, told the court in San Diego: “Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the <<We the people… >> when the Constitution was adopted.”
Theodore Shaw said that if the case were successful, it could have implications not just on how other marine parks or zoos operate, but even on the police use of sniffer dogs to detect bombs and drugs.
PETA says the killer whales are treated like slaves for being forced to live in tanks and perform daily at the SeaWorld parks in California and Florida
PETA says the killer whales are treated like slaves for being forced to live in tanks and perform daily at the SeaWorld parks in California and Florida.
It is not considered likely that the whales will win their freedom, but campaigners said they were pleased the case even made it to a courtroom.
The lawsuit invokes the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which abolished “slavery or involuntary servitude” in the US.
Jeffrey Kerr, the lawyer representing the five whales, said: “For the first time in our nation’s history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human.
“By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here.”
Hearing the arguments for about an hour, US District Judge Jeffrey Miller raised concerns over whether animals could be represented as plaintiffs in a lawsuit.
He will issue a ruling at a later date.
PETA names the five wild-captured orca plaintiffs as Tilikum and Katina, at SeaWorld Orlando; and Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises, at SeaWorld San Diego.
It is not Tilikum’s first time in the media spotlight – he drowned his trainer before horrified spectators in February 2010, prompting a ban on the Florida park’s employees entering the water to perform tricks with the orcas.
The same whale has also been linked to two other deaths.