‘It’s A Really Weird Situation’: A Rare White Orca Is In BC And Nobody Knows Why

Help scientists solve the mystery

McInnes, Josh D., Chelsea R. Mathieson, Peggy J. West-Stap, Stephanie L. Marcos, Victoria L. Wade, Paula A. Olson, and Andrew W. Trites. 2021. Transient killer whales of central and northern California and Oregon: A catalog of photo-identified individuals. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-644.

Can you help orca scientists solve the mystery of a rare white transient killer whale spotted off the B.C. coast?

Researchers are asking anyone who sees the young orca named Frostbite to send photographs, especially of her face, to transientproject@gmail.com.

Frostbite, a California killer whale who suddenly appeared in B.C. this month, became an instant news celebrity after workers at a fish farm posted Facebook videos of her with her mom in Beaver Cove, B.C.

Courtesy of David Petersen via Mike Dobbs FB page.

Why she came north is just one of many mysteries surrounding this little orca, says marine biologist Josh McInnis.

“It’s a really weird situation,” McInnis, a University of British Columbia researcher who has tracked her since she was born far off California’s coast, in 2019.

Photographs sent by the public will help researchers solve the biggest mystery: why is Frostbite white, and what does that mean for her future? Almost all orcas carry the famous “tuxedo” black and white markings.

Scientists don’t yet have a good image of her face to be able to tell if her eyes are pink, or dark.

Mike Dobbs, via FB page.

Pink eyes would show that she’s an albino. Albinism is caused by a genetic recessive disorder, which would harm her immune system and ability to echolocate– which means finding prey by sound–and potentially cause her early death. 

Dark eyes would indicate a lack of melanin, which controls colouring in animals and humans. The lack of melanin, called leucism, is not deadly, notes McInnis. 

Another mystery is why Frostbite and her mom travelled thousands of kilometres from California to B.C.

McInnis said the mom and daughter-known by scientists as OCT050C and OCT050C1-were last seen on June 24. At the time, they were far off the coast of California near the Farallon Islands, within their own pod of offshore transient killer whales. 

Mike Dobbs, via FB page.

That population, which travels in deep water from Mexico to Oregon, is separate from the inner coast transient orcas typically found between the West Coast of Vancouver Island and Washington State. They have different diets and hunting habits.

But in B.C. this month, Frostbite and her mom “were seen with inner coast transients,” puzzled McInnis. “They might have been following them, and they were behaving and hunting the same way.”

Despite their name killer whale, orcas are not actually whales-but the world’s largest dolphins. 

Still, the name “killer whale” is perfect for them, said McInnis. Their reputation has changed over the years from being considered terrifying, to becoming one of the most recognizable and popular animals in the world, he noted. “What most people don’t realize is, they are the top predators.”

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