White orcas and whales were once so rare that they were thought to be a myth. However, according to the leading ocean researchers and scientists, there are about five individuals alive today.
Whale-watchers off the coast of Japan’s northern island Hokkaido were met with a pleasant surprise when they spotted not only one but two white orcas swimming together at the same time.
One of them is an older animal first spotted two years ago, but the second was younger and had not been seen before.
The two orcas are not thought to be albinos but to have leucism, meaning they still have some skin pigment.
That means their markings are still faintly visible and their eyes are still dark instead of being bright red.
Correct albino whales will be completely white and have red eyes – a color given by the red blood in vessels that are usually hidden behind the iris showing through.
The orcas were spotted during a whale-watching tour on July 24 in the Kunashirskiy Strait, a 20-mile stretch of water between the northern islands of Hokkaido and Kunashir.
Mai, an employee of the Gojiraiwa-Kanko tour company, said one of the pair was older with slightly darker skin while the other was younger and had clearly visible scratch marks down its back.
‘It was the best day ever. This is the first time two white orcas have been seen off the coast of Japan,’ she said.
As the populace of a species drops, so does its genetic variation because the animals left have fewer potential mates to choose from.
Depending on the genes carried by those remaining individuals, it could accentuate some traits that were previously thought of as genetically rare.
That includes rare genetic disorders that hamper an animal’s ability to survive in the wild, threatening to accelerate the species’ decline.
While it is not known exactly what effect the leucism has on the lives of the orcas that inherit it, it does make them more visible – potentially hampering their ability to hunt, and attracting unwanted attention from rivals.
However, the trait is not always harmful. For example, Kermode bears are traditionally black but are increasingly being born white thanks to a recessive gene.