A rare white orca calf dubbed “Tl’uk” was spotted off the coast of Washington State. “The thing that everyone is talking about with Tl’uk is his color,” said Erin Gless, a naturalist with Seattle-based Island Adventures Whale Watching, “He’s obviously white, he doesn’t look like other orcas.”
Tl’uk is named for the moon in the local Salish indigenous language, first spotted last November. Although scientists were sure Tl’uk is not albino, it’s unclear why he has such unique colouring.
“He is just really, really, light but you can still see that he has an eye-patch like an orca. We’re not sure why he looks the way that he does,” said Gless, adding that Tl’uk’s unique coloring is likely due to a condition called leucism, whereby an animal experiences a partial loss of pigmentation causing white or pale coloured skin.
Although not the first white-colored orca born in the area, Gless says he is the only one known to have survived this long. This particular population of killer whales have had a handful of calves born with similar coloring, all of who died shortly after birth. Tl’uk, on the other hand, is doing well and seems big for his age.
“You could call him a bruiser,” laughed Gless, noting that he’s not alone. Earlier last month, marine scientists spotted another younger, healthy white calf in California waters. The team thought the young whale was Tl’uk, but the calf belongs to another orca pod identified as the CA216 family group. It is possible the two calves share a dad – orcas are known to range as far south as California. Gless added only genetic testing could confirm that notion.
Tl’uk’s pod of orcas’ native waters extend from Washington State northward to Southeast Alaska, sharing their home waters with the declining Southern Resident Killer Whale (SKRW) group, making headlines last year when a grieving mother refused to leave her dead calf for almost three weeks. This well-known extended family of Pacific Northwest orcas has been slowly dying off, reaching an all-time low population grown last summer after failing to birth a calf for three years. The family successfully birthed a baby girl last spring but still face challenges from declining salmon stocks.
Although Tl’uk’s population live in the same waters with the same exposure levels to toxins and vessels, they are doing very well. The SKRW group, unfortunately, is dying off. The difference is that Tl’uk’s family’s main source of food is marine mammals like seals and sea lions. As a result there were more babies born in the mammal-eating group compared to the entire SKRW group. In comparison, there are currently only 73 SKRW and just under 90 babies born to the mammal-eating population since 2012. Unfortunately it’s not a case of being hungry and finding another food source
“On paper, they’re the same species. As of right now, all orcas over the world belong to Orcinus orca,”Gless explained. Current research indicates that there are four different ‘types’ of orcas, one of which may even be its own species. “The truth is that when you look at their DNA, they are very different,” said Gless. “A lion that is hungry isn’t going to look to grass as a food source. Orcas just aren’t wired that way, either. There are physical differences between the two orca groups and they may even have different enzymes to digest different sorts of food.”
Orcas can live to be nearly 100-years-old and salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest have been steadily depleted over the last half-century, Gless says their food source is declining in their own lifetime. It’s not just about less salmon being available, they are also smaller. Humans hunt the larger fish, resulting in the orcas having to use much more energy to catch the same amount of food.
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