Local researchers are asking Southeast Alaska residents to keep an eye out for a white killer whale, seen recently near Petersburg, and believed to be part of a pod known to travel as far north as Haines.
“I’d like people to know how rare a white killer whale is and how wonderful it is being so close,” said Stephanie Hayes, a Petersburg-based doctoral student with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “We can actually record and learn more about these rare killer whales.”
Tl’uk, as whale T046B1B is known, is about 2 years old and is believed to be a male. However, since the animal is still a juvenile, Hayes said researchers can’t be entirely sure of the sex yet. Hayes said Tl’uk is a regular around Vancouver Island, but he was seen recently near Kake. She was able to snap a photo of the whale with its pod near Petersburg on Aug. 6, and on Monday Tl’uk was seen again near Petersburg’s Sandy Beach, she said.
The name is Coast Salish for moon, Hayes said, and when he’s seen in the water, Tl’uk’s whiteness makes him look almost like he’s glowing, something which might be a problem later in life. Killer whales are hunters, Hayes said, and being easily spotted isn’t exactly advantageous to a predator.
“You’re kind of a beacon,” she said of being a brightly pigmented hunter. “It’s going to be more difficult to hunt a sea lion if it can see you coming.”
Since Tl’uk is still only a juvenile, he hasn’t strayed too far from his pod, Hayes said, but once he does it’s unknown if he’ll be accepted into other pods. Some males leave their home pods and join others in their lifetime, but not all whales are accepted by other pods. These males can become what Hayes called “loners,” who live mostly independently. But those animals don’t glow brightly in the water, and can easily hunt on their own. Whether or not other pods will accept a white whale, or if Tl’uk will be able to hunt on his own an open question, she said.
The scarcity white killer whales in the world meant Tl’uk’s presence is Southeast presented an unlikely opportunity to collect data not just on white killer whales, but orcas in general, Hayes said. There are still a lot of unknowns about killer whales in general which makes knowing what might happen to Tl’uk hard to predict.
Tl’uk is not fully white, and doesn’t have pink eyes, which leads Hayes to believe he probably doesn’t have albinism, a condition defined by a complete lack of pigmentation. Hayes believes Tl’uk has what’s called leucism.
“With leucism there’s a lack of vibrancy in the pigmentation,” Hayes said. “The colors are more muted and not fully expressed. “You can still see the spots but it looks like a ghostly color.”
Leucism is certainly a possibility, according to Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Department, but because there’s so little data on white killer whales it’s too soon to tell.
There was a white killer whale named Chimo at Sealand of the Pacific, a former aquarium near Victoria, British Columbia, in the 1970s, but it is still hard to say what was causing the “whitewashing” of the orca’s skin.
More white killer whales have been reported in the past few decades, according to Hayes, and there is some research to suggest leucism was ultimately the result of increased inbreeding due to declining whale populations. There’s not yet enough data to be conclusive, but genetic research on whales has improved, she said, and researchers in Switzerland have theorized increased instances of leucism could be the result of a lack of genetic diversity.
It’s difficult to know what is considered typical for killer whale populations as good data is sparse and only goes back a few decades, she said. The lack of general knowledge about killer whales was something Hanson noted when asked about the potential link between inbreeding and leucism. It is an interesting theory he said, but wasn’t sure he agreed.
“My perspective is that because there’s been increased effort in looking at killers whales, it wouldn’t surprise me we’re detecting more, (instances of abnormalities),” Hanson, who’s based in Seattle, said in a phone interview Monday.
“All the genetics on transient populations is unclear, we don’t have a definitive idea of what the stock structure is,” he said, referring to transient orcas, who hunt mammals and are biologically different from other kinds of killer whales.
“We did detect some inbreeding in one of the pods. I don’t think we have enough information to evaluate it at this point,” he said.
But collecting information is exactly what Hayes says people can help do.
“It’s super important and super easy,” she said.
There’s a number of websites tracking whale movements and a lot of the data is collected by everyday people uploading pictures of when and where they saw a particular whale.
Hayes mentioned HappyWhale.com as a site where members of the public can upload pictures of whales with time, date and location and that data will become public information for researchers around the globe. Pictures of dorsal fins on animals’ backs are best, Hayes said, as scientists use those markings to identify individual whales.
White whales or not, tracking whales is useful information and helps NOAA better understand habitat use, Hanson said, giving a better picture of the overall health of the ecosystems.
Tl’uk and his pod are here to eat, Hayes said, and where they go is entirely up to them. Historically Tl’uk’s pod has come to Southeast, but this is the first time the white whale has been seen in Alaskan waters, she said.
“We know the pod has been coming up and we can keep an eye out for them,” she said. “We have a chance to actually see the white killer whale. It could be headed your way.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.