Was an All-White Orca Recently Spotted Off The Russian Coast?

It has not been determined what may have caused such a unique coloration.

  • Published
Bird, Animal, Sea Life
Image via Erich Hoyt

Claim

An online article shows a rare, all-white orca recently spotted off the coast of Russia by researchers with the Far East Russia Orca Project.

Rating

Context

It is true that a completely white orca named Iceberg was spotted in Russian waters by a team of international researchers. However, the whale in question has not been seen since 2015, and reports surrounding original observations are misleading and, in some instances, incorrect.

Origin

In July 2021, a website that claimed to be a news publication — KDN 24 News — reported that an all-white orca had been observed in Russian waters by an international team of researchers. Though the article in question did not explicitly state a date that the sighting occurred, wording implied that the whale had been spotted recently — and a closer look at the details it reported revealed that several facts were misrepresented and, in some cases, fabricated.

The article in question referenced author and whale researcher Erich Hoyt, whom Snopes contacted for further clarification about the origin of the photographs. A look through Hoyt’s official Facebook page did not surface any recent postings suggesting that he was conducting research off the coast of Russia, or that he had seen the all-white orca. A reverse image search of the photographs published in the article returned results dating back to at least 2016. While it is true that the orca in question and the photographs published of the whale are authentic, we have rated this claim as “Outdated” because neither the photographs nor the sighting occurred in July 2021.

In an email to Snopes, Hoyt said that he had never personally seen Iceberg but that it was his team with the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), a project that he co-founded and is funded partly by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), that saw the white whale in August 2010. Furthermore, none of the reported sightings occurred in the Kuril Islands as the blog post claims, but rather, in the Commander. Iceberg was again spotted in the same region with the same pod in 2015, at which point researchers estimated his age to be about 22 years.

The story of Iceberg made headlines again in 2016 when Hoyt authored a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Aquatic Mammals in which the researcher reported that his team was unable to determine whether Iceberg’s unique coloring was caused by albinism, a complete lack of melanin pigmentation, or a partial lack known as leucism that can affect various animals, from giraffes to penguins.

And though the pod does not show any aggression toward albino whales, Hoyt added that the condition is a “dubious honor” — the prevalence of albinism in Russian killer whale populations likely indicates inbreeding. Both albinism and leucism are inherited and because Russian waters carry the highest known incidence of white killer whales in the world — about one in every 1,000 — this may indicate certain susceptibilities in north Pacific populations, Hoyt added.

“Killer whale populations all over the world are relatively small and have been shown to have low genetic diversity,” Hoyt told Snopes.

“So, the high rate of white individuals who are albinos or leucistic is not surprising. In terms of management, this highlights how vulnerable killer whales are not only to environmental and other human factors but also to the internal mutation load which can become a significant threat in small, inbred populations.”

Over the past decade, Hoyt wrote that his team has found between five and eight all-white killer whales. Iceberg was the only mature male — the others are believed to have been immature juveniles and calves except for two mature females.

If Iceberg were alive today, Hoyt estimated he would be 27 years old — three years away from the average lifespan of a male orca.

“Our team is still going out every year, now in the 22nd year this summer, so we would love to see him again,” Hoyt told Snopes.