His name is Iceberg, and he's being touted as the only known all-white mature male orca in the world. Scientists from the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are hoping he'll become a symbol of conservation for the ocean.
Scientists from the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) are saying the first ever adult all-white bull orca has been observed n the North Pacific, east of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the Commander Islands.
The male was filmed during studies of acoustic and social complexity in whale and dolphin populations in the region, that identified 61 social orca units over the past 12 years. One of the family units was Iceberg's, who lives in a pod with 12 other orcas. Estimated to be around 16-years-old, Iceberg was unmistakable as his two-meter fin broke the surface.
According to Erich Hoyt, the co-director of FEROP:
"The extraordinary beauty and charisma of an all-white mature bull orca, cracking the wild and windy waters of the Russian Far East, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of appreciating the extraordinary diversity of life here."
Hoyt adds that the project has revealed some 15 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, and three white orcas, including the first ever all-white mature male. "We’ve called him “Iceberg,” Hoyt said, and right now the possible albino bull is clearly a symbol of the ocean.
Scientists hope that Iceberg will become a shining example for ocean preservation.
The area around the Commander Islands where Iceberg was first spotted, is protected and one of Russia’s largest marine reserves. Current plans are to expand it and scientists are suggesting that the reserve should form part of a network of reserves to offer protection to the critical habitat of various whale, dolphin and porpoise species off of eastern Russia.
At risk from overfishing in some areas and increased oil and gas exploration, threats to marine mammals range from increasing noise levels to ship traffic and potential oil spills. As noise levels increase, said scientists, the ability of whales to communicate over long distances may be compromised.
Hoyt describes Iceberg as a "Symbol of all that is pure, wild and extraordinarily exciting about what is out there in the ocean waiting to be discovered. The challenge," he added, "is to keep the ocean healthy so that such surprises are always possible."
Moscow State University biologist Dr. Olga Filatova and her team is currently looking for scientific proof that the resident fish-eating orca pods, such as Iceberg’s, and the transient marine-mammal-eating orcas, are separate species. Filatova said:
"The conclusions will have strong implications for the conservation of the species. If they can be shown to be two species, which many think they probably are, then each one will require a separate conservation plan with potentially greater concern and benefits for both species."
Hoyt added that although the project has no genetic data on Iceberg's pod, the project is "Hoping to meet them again in summer 2012 and learn more about the phenomenon of white whales, why they occur, what it means, and whether Iceberg is a true albino." The scientist says, "Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of a pink eye — or “just” one of the most beautiful orcas anyone has ever seen."
In 2008, a white orca spotted in Alaska's Aleutian Islands "sent researchers and the ship's crew scrambling for their cameras" said MSNBC. Further observation showed that while the whale's saddle area was white, other parts of its body had a subtle yellowish or brownish color. John Durban, a research biologist at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said at the time, that it was not likely an albino given the coloration. Yet this killer whale was also discovered in a pod of twelve.
To learn more about orcas in Russian waters and in particular Iceberg, visit RussianOrca.com and ShiftingValues.com. The work conducted by FEROP is also supported by Humane Society International (HSI), the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).