Scientists have spotted an extremely rare all-white adult orca off Russia's coast and are wondering if it's the same animal photographed by scientists in Alaska in 2000 and 2008 — or if there is more than one.

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On a sparkling summer morning in 2010, a group of Russian scientists working near the Kamchatka Peninsula spied a giant swimming ghost: an exceedingly rare, all-white killer whale, diving and surfacing as part of an ordinary orca pod.

“It was startling to see this 2-meter-high white dorsal fin shooting up among the other killer whales,” said Erich Hoyt, who oversees the Russian whale-research group that announced the 2-year-old sighting this week by releasing photographs and video. “It takes your breath away.”

But it wasn’t the first time such a creature made waves. In 2000, a University of Washington seabird ecologist trailed and photographed an all-white adult orca for a half-hour off Alaska’s central Aleutian Islands. Eight years later, a whale biologist photographed the same animal, identifying it by a shark-bite scar and telltale ripples on its fin.

Hoyt agreed Tuesday that the Russian whale his team has nicknamed “Iceberg” may well be the same creature that made those appearances in Alaska. If not, at least two extraordinarily unusual all-white adult male orcas may be living in the North Pacific.

“We really don’t want to discount either possibility,” Hoyt said by phone from Europe. “Both of them are actually really exciting. It’s really 50-50 at this point.”

The discovery of Iceberg near the Bering Sea’s Commander Islands is making news around the globe this week, with many reports characterizing him as the first documented male albino orca to survive to adulthood. But Hoyt and other marine biologists say it’s not clear whether Iceberg is albino, or if the cetacean is just somehow genetically different from its peers.

That’s one of the many questions that Hoyt, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project and an internationally acclaimed whale biologist, hopes to answer when his team returns to Russian waters this spring.

“It’s fascinating,” said Brad Hanson, a whale biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “It’d be really great if they could put it all together.”

Albinos seldom seen

Documented sightings of albino marine mammals are scarce. An all-white bottlenose dolphin was spotted in the Gulf of Mexico in 2007. An albino humpback whale is regularly seen off the coast of Australia. In the late 1960s, there were reports but no photographs of a white killer whale off the Washington coast.

Perhaps the most famous example was Chimo, known as T4, a young female orca captured in British Columbia in 1970 and displayed for two years at a Victoria, B.C., aquarium. When Chimo died, researchers found the whale suffered from Chediak-Higashi syndrome, an immune disorder that dilutes pigmentation. It kills mammals before adulthood.

Three decades later, UW scientist Martin Renner spied an off-white orca near Adak Island in Alaska. It was one of only two males in a pod of about 15 fish-eating orcas, and the size of its dorsal fin suggested it was at least 20 years old. Age alone ruled out the affliction that had killed Chimo.

“It looked white from a distance,” Renner said this week, but when it got close, he could see the parts that normally are black were still there, just colored a pale sandy-tan.

Fishermen reported seeing the orca a week later, but there were no other reports until February 2008, when Holly Fearnbach, a marine-mammal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, spotted it again in the same area. She could see the same cookie-cutter shark bitemarks Renner had seen near its blowhole.

It was “remarkable to see an animal that is so unique,” Fearnbach said in an email.

No ‘easy clues’

But is Fearnbach’s whale unique? No one can say how many white orcas there are.

The distance between the Aleutians and Russia is nothing for whales that most likely travel between the North Pacific and Hawaii, Hoyt said. And Iceberg, like the Alaska whale, clearly is an adult and a fish-eater traveling in a pod of about a dozen animals. There was nothing to suggest his immune system was compromised. So it could be the same animal Fearnbach saw.

But when Hoyt spoke with Fearnbach this week and the two shared images, Hoyt discovered “the easy clues just aren’t there.”

“There is some evidence that they are the same, but other things aren’t quite right,” he said. “When you look at the pictures side by side, superficially, they don’t look alike, but they were taken under radically different circumstances and many years apart.”

The shark bite and ripples on the dorsal fin spotted by Renner can’t be seen on Iceberg, but Hoyt said they could have faded. Iceberg also seems paler than Renner and Fearnbach’s whale, but that could just be the photographs.

The bottom line: “I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at this point,” Hoyt said.

Either way, Hoyt’s team had other news, too. Iceberg wasn’t the only oddly colored whale they saw. They saw two young mottled-white whale calves, which suggests Iceberg was healthy enough to father offspring.

In fact, part of the reason it took Hoyt’s team nearly two years to release images is that researchers wanted first to get more information. But they spent the summer of 2011 looking and never saw any of the white animals again.

When they return to the islands in the next few weeks, they hope to have better luck. In fact, they hope to look Iceberg in the eye. A pink hue would suggest he’s a true albino.

If nothing else, Hoyt said, his team hopes to see and take more pictures of this mystical-looking creature that people already seem to be identifying with as a symbol of wild nature.

“Killer whales are so starkly black that when you see an all-white one it’s pretty amazing,” Hoyt said. “It’s a moment for celebration. It’s a strikingly beautiful animal.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093


On Twitter @craigawelch