Rare white orca spotted in Southeast Alaska

A photo of a normal black colored orca breaching in the water at the same time as a mottled white orca.
This grey/white orca T46B1B, nicknamed Tl’uk, was identified by Alaska Sea Adventures off Cape Bendel, Frederick Sound, August 7, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Hayes)

A Petersburg-based whale watching and charter company documented the white orca in the Inside Passage this summer. It’s been sighted frequently in British Columbia and Washington state as well.

Dennis Rogers, owner of Alaska Sea Adventures, was on a charter trip with eight guests, cruising along Kuiu and Kupreanof islands west of Petersburg. He said they spotted three orcas, including the white one, along Kupreanof Island on August 7.

“It sure made spotting him easy. When they went down underwater, usually they disappear and typically are very hard to follow. But having a white one under the water, you could see him an easy ten feet below the surface, this big white shape moving along there.”

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His boat, the Northern Song, was able to stay with the whales. Stephanie Hayes is first mate and a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She got some good photographs for identification.

“I saw kind of a glow under the water and I’m thinking, wow that’s an awfully white killer whale, that’s doing something funny,” Hayes said. “And no, it was just genuinely the white killer whale. And it popped up and you could hear an audible gasp from everybody on the bow, going oh my gosh what are we seeing here. It was really incredible.”

This orca was born in 2018. Researchers assigned it catalog number 46B1B based on its lineage. But it’s nickname is more poetic. It’s called Tl’uk, a Coast Salish word for “moon.” Tl’uk is a greyish moon color, without the typical black and white pattern. It also has some intricate markings visible near its dorsal fin, which help to identify it.

Scientists call animals like this “leucistic,” which is a different inherited condition from albinism.

Jared Towers, a killer whale researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said Tl’uk “is not quite pure white and it doesn’t have the pink eyes that would indicate albinism. There’s a possibility that it has some kind of rare condition which includes partial albinism, but I think it’s probably more so a lack of pigment, which is much more common.”

Still, Towers calls this animal quite rare, with just two currently alive and five or six documented in this whale population in the last 80 years or so. Others have been documented closer to Russia.

This whale’s mother and grandmother have ranged up and down the Pacific coast. The family is more commonly seen around Vancouver Island. Towers believes it’s the first trip for this 2-year-old into Alaska waters.

“I think it’s great that the little guy has been seen up there,” Towers said. “He seems to be healthy every time I’ve seen him, he’s looking pretty good and again, not surprising that he has shown up. The family has a long sightings history in that area, as well as BC and Puget Sound, Washington and even as far south as Oregon.”

He notes killer whales travel quickly, and it’s likely this group could be seen back near Vancouver Island in just a couple weeks.

There are multiple, distinct types of orcas, which eat different foods. Resident whales focus on fish. Rare, offshore orcas are shark eaters. But this animal belongs to the meat eaters, or Bigg’s killer whales, also called transients. They feast on porpoises, dolphins, sea lions and seals.

This pod was also observed swimming the shoreline of Mitkof Island near Petersburg. The Northern Song’s Hayes was able to get more photographs, closer to Petersburg, and observed some feeding.

“So right outside Sandy Beach the pod was making a kill, presumably on seals,” Hayes said. “And then right off of City Creek, we were able to watch the pod make what looked like another kill, another hunt in that area also.”

Sightings have continued near Petersburg, drawing photographers and whale enthusiasts to the Frederick Sound shoreline.

Joe Viechnicki is a reporter at KFSK in Petersburg.

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