PHOTO: Two Rare White Orcas Spotted Off Japan’s Coast

by Amy Myers

As if there wasn’t already enough to watch in Japan this summer, two rare white orcas made an appearance off the coast of the nation yesterday. Whether they were here to watch the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, we can’t say. But we do know that once word spread of the spotting, no one could keep their eyes off the water.

Whale-watchers off the coast of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido spotted the rare pair swimming together among a typical, black-and-white colored pod. According to Daily Mail, this wasn’t the first time that the older of the white orcas made an appearance. Two years ago, Japan natives first saw the white whale. Now, it’s back with a younger friend.

Perhaps just as interesting as the younger orca’s color were the markings on its body. The whale had distinguishable scratch marks covering the length of its back. The Global News states that this is from natural causes, such as altercations with other whales for mates. However, that didn’t explain why the whale’s scars were so much darker than the rest of his body’s pigment. While initially, whale-watchers believed the white orcas to be albinos, this characteristic proved otherwise.

‘Albino’ White Orcas Turn Out to Be Leucist

Had the white orcas actually been albino, the younger one’s scars would have healed only a slightly darker white than the rest of his body. Both whales would also have had red eyes to signify the absence of color in their irises. The white patches around the older orca’s eyes are also still visible, meaning there is at least some pigment left in its skin. All of these characteristics point less to albinism and more to leucism.

While albinism is the complete absence of pigment–or melanin–in the skin, leucism is the blanket term for the wide range of conditions that cause less production of melanin. This is why the older white orca’s patches are still visible. For the younger orca, it’s possible that it once was the typical black-and-white whale we typically see, but over time, his pigment faded. That could be why his scars are so much darker than the rest of his skin.

Even though the white whales might seem like an anomaly, leucism in whales is actually becoming more increasingly common. Although scientists are unsure of the reason for the growing number, they do know that the condition is not harmful to the whales. Rather, it’s just a genetic diversity that makes the whale sighting feel even more magical.

Conveniently, the white orcas were beautiful creatures that just happened to pop up during the summer Olympics. In some cultures, whale sightings are a sign of good fortune. Perhaps these two white orcas were simply here to bring luck to the competing athletes and their teams.