Today I read with interest that a fully white, mature, male Orca (Killer) whale has been spotted in a family pod of 12 whales. I was already aware of the fully white Humpback whale, Migaloo, a photograph of whom was submitted to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2011 (a stunning picture that I saw at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery). This Orca whale is thought to be 16 or more years old and he has been named Iceberg.
Iceberg is the oldest white Orca whale recorded by scientists. Many young albino Orca whales have been recorded but scientists have never recorded one who has lived though to maturity (15 years old). Iceberg has not yet been confirmed as an albino, despite him being white all over. Scientists have said that a biopsy would confirm this, which horrified me. However, they are going to try and verify it by noting the colour of his eyes.
No more information was given on this but albino’s eyes can be blue, hazel or, in very rare circumstances, red, so I wonder what the colour of his eyes could tell scientists. Unless they are blue or red, a biopsy may be required to confirm his albinism. That is, if he’s still alive. The Guardian reported that the last time he was seen was in 2010 and scientists are now back in the same Russian waters, keeping an eye out for him, which begs the question why this is suddenly news two years later.
The piece in the article that bothered me was the fact that Iceberg has been fully accepted by his family. Why should he not be? We already know that whales are incredibly intelligent creatures and with every new piece of information comes more evidence of their intelligence and empathy. This led me to think about the role of albinism in human society.
Albino’s have a negative reputation. They are often portrayed as the villain in Hollywood or with red eyes which are also commonly associated with possession and demons, for example Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (Paul Bettany’s albino has red eyes in the book, something that the movie producers were warned to steer clear of). There is a historical problem in Africa with the association of albinos and magical powers, leading witch doctors to kill and dismember albinos. The first case of this sort was brought to trial shockingly recently.
Basically what this stems down to is a reaction to something that is different. Prejudice against albinism is the same as racism or homophobia – it is the fear of what is different; something that will probably always exist in human society and is the result of poor education and ignorance.
This led me to wonder if whales can suffer from poor education and ignorance. Would Iceberg be bullied for his colour if he were to enter a new pod? Do whales have their own superstitions and would they view Iceberg with fear purely because he is white? When put this way the notion is laughable and yet it happens every day in the human world.
Does this mean that whales are more intelligent than humans? That they can accept difference amongst their own kind? Or that they are less intelligent and perhaps haven’t even noticed that Iceberg is different to them. Maybe, they are the same as us and only his family would ever accept him because he is their blood.
I hope the scientists have asked the question of whether Iceberg is breeding – do the females view him as weak or is he actually too weak to vie for the females’ attention?
Just what is life like for an albino adult male whale?
Can anyone else feel a children’s book coming on?