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Iceberg the white bull orca, marine media-star...and much more

The media reporting over the past 2 weeks about the existence of Iceberg an all-white mature male killer whale, or orca, seen off the Commander Islands, Far East Russia travelled across the world. More than 300 million people in at least 50 countries read the news on online portals alone. On youtube, more than a million people glimpsed the rare sighting of Iceberg, the official video counting more than 640,000 views in the first week. People are curious, but it is also testament that the beauty of wildlife, its uniqueness, the surprises still possible in nature, fascinate all of us.

The media reports also stimulated fruitful discussions and reactions, including debates among scientists, about whether Iceberg is an albino, or whether there is another reason for his whiteness and if he is the only all-white male orca bull in the wild, or are there others. Indeed, another white male orca was photographed in Alaskan waters in 2000 and 2008. Some have suggested that it might be the same individual as Iceberg. In the photos, the Alaskan orca is considerably darker than Iceberg, although that could be due to diatoms (algae), but hes definitely a white orca. Both Iceberg and the Alaska whale are probably fish-eating resident-type orcas; both have a pod size of about 12 to 15 animals.

Our Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) team has looked closely at the photos in the past few days and although there are similarities, the Alaska orca and Iceberg are different orcas.

The reason for Iceberg’s whiteness remains uncertain. To prove if he is albino or perhaps merely unpigmented, or leucistic we would need a photograph of his eye, or a genetic sample. Our FEROP team has also seen two smaller white orcas in recent years belonging to two other pods: one calf, more recently seen as a 3-year-old-plus youngster, and one female, now thought to be an adult. Both of these are splotchy white, maybe partly covered in diatoms, not nearly so white as Iceberg.

This month, our Russian team will head off to the Far East region to pursue our long-term research on whales, including orcas, but also humpback and Bairds beaked whales and other marine mammals. Of course, we hope to find Iceberg and collect more data and knowledge about him and his pod. Such research is undertaken in careful, benign ways, trying not to have an impact on the whales. We are dedicated to collecting information and gaining knowledge that will contribute to better protection of these mammals in the wild. We want our efforts to ensure a future for whales, whale research and whale habitats as part of the expansion of a network of marine protected areas in the region.

Meanwhile Iceberg himself has already become a flagship and a symbol for the mysterious marine life that we want so much to learn more about and that we are all responsible for protecting. We hope to meet him again.

We will keep you posted.



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05 February 2019 01:00
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