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Orca Conservation off Coast of Kamchatka

Scientists engaged in the study of acoustic and social interactions of dolphins and whales off the coast of Russia's Commander Islands (Komandorskiye ostrova) near the Kamchatka Peninsula in April were met with an extraordinary sight in the shape of a two meter tall pure white dorsal fin sticking out above the water. It was the first sighting of an all-white adult killer whale by the scientists and researchers of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) which has been monitoring orca whales in the Bering Sea for the past twelve years, assisted by the International Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Although up to 1,500 whales have been sighted and catalogued during this time, the sighting of the all-white whale is particularly noteworthy.

Measuring at least seven meters in length, the whale, which has been named 'Iceberg', has not been classified as a true albino due to the coloring on his saddle. Researchers were able to document the sighting on film, with Iceberg's white dorsal fin in stark contrast with the rest of his family's black colored fins. It is estimated that Iceberg is around 16 years old, and appears to be active and healthy. Researchers hope to collect a genetic sample in the future to try and determine the cause of the whale's unusual coloration.

Killer whales, or Orcas, are considered to be among the most intelligent of marine mammals. They are also the strongest and fastest, with their only predators being humans. They are very social creatures and are found in pods of varying numbers. Due to insufficient global data, it is difficult to assess the conservation status of orcas, but they are generally not considered to be endangered, although numbers have dwindled in some areas. Data gathered by FEROP will help in determining the conservation status of killer whales in the region it monitors.

Orcas are known to travel vast distances, and National Geographic recently reported that Iceberg may be the same killer whale spotted in 2000 and again in 2008 around the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, always among around a dozen or so black and white patterned family members. While the previously spotted whale appeared darker, Erich Hoyt of FEROP noted that seasonal algae on the skin could make a white animal look darker. Whether Iceberg is a widely-travelled albino whale, or whether he has a look-alike in Alaska are mysteries researchers will no doubt want to solve.


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