Whale Watchers Spot Pair of Rare White Orcas Off Japanese Coast

While taking a boat tour off the coast of Hokkaido, the main Japanese archipelago's northernmost island, tourists were treated to the sight of two animals so rare that sailors reportedly once believed they were mythical: white orcas.

White marine mammals are so seldom seen that firsthand observations are often considered newsworthy. "There have only been about eight white killer whales ever recorded in the world," Stephanie Hayes, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told CBS News in 2020. However, some scientists speculate that they may be increasing in number as a result of inbreeding, according to CBS. In August 2015 and September 2015, whale watchers spotted a white humpback whale known as Migaloo Jr. off Australia's Gold Coast and a white Risso's dolphin calf in California's Monterey Bay, respectively. More recently, a woman named Caitlin Mackey filmed a white bottlenose dolphin calf in Florida's Clearwater Basin Marina.

Employees of Gojiraiwa Kanko Whale Watching, the private company that ran the tour, managed to take multiple photographs of the orcas as they swam in a pod with about 100 others on the morning of July 24, according to a Facebook post by the company. In the watermarked photographs, the orcas stand in sharp contrast to their bicolored family members. The paleness of their hide means that cuts, scratches, and other abrasions are readily apparent. However, the white orcas are technically not true albinos, according to Nature World News.

While the term albino is often misused to refer to any person or animal that has lighter-than-average coloration, it technically only applies to those that produce no melanin whatsoever. True albinos will have white skin and hair and crimson irises for that reason. Instead of albinism, the white orcas are thought to suffer from leucism, a congenital condition that reduces but does not totally inhibit the production of melanin, according to Nature World News. Consequently, their eyes are black rather than red. Likewise, Migaloo Jr., the white humpback whale, is likely leucistic rather than albinic, according to the Pacific Whale Foundation.

The orcas were reportedly spotted in the Kunashirsky Strait, a narrow channel that divides Hokkaido from its neighbor Kunashir Island, at around 11:50 a.m. local time. Describing the sighting as "extremely rare," an employee who wrote a blog post on the day's events noted that he or she had last seen a white orca two years before, in 2019.

Newsweek reached out to Gojiraiwa Kanko Whale Watching for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

Whale-watchers spots a mother and white calf.
While taking a boat tour off the coast of Hokkaido, tourists saw two rare white orcas. Above, whale watchers spot a mother and white calf. AFP/Getty Images