A rare white orca calf never before documented in B.C. waters was glimpsed off the coast of a small Vancouver Island community Wednesday — some 2,000 kilometres from its usual splashing grounds.
Onlookers say the calf and its mother were lying on their bellies in the water at Beaver Cove for nearly 30 minutes, behaviour that’s often considered concerning.
“Never seen anything like it, just an incredible, probably once in a lifetime experience,” says Mike Dobbs, who was watching from up on shore. “First thing I did was lift my phone and begin recording that encounter and did that for a few minutes, and then kind of stopped and thought something doesn’t look right about this.”
Eventually, the pair made their way back out to deep waters.
The whale-watching company Prince of Whales was conducting a tour of the area off Telegraph Cove on the north coast of the Island when captain Scott Turton also noticed the primarily white orca calf.
He initially thought it was a Bigg’s killer whale, T46B1B (Tl’uk), a white orca well-known in the Salish Sea, but after studying photos of the animal, he realized it was a different orca.
Remembering another white orca spotted several times in California — even as far south as Tijuana, Mexico — Turton reached out to a researcher with the California Killer Whale Project, Alisa Shulman-Janiger.
She confirmed that the white calf, CA216C1 or “Frosty,” and its mother CA216C were travelling with members of the local Bigg’s killer whale families T060 and T069.
“At one point the two California whales branched off on their own and found themselves in very shallow water in Beaver Cove…but by 5 p.m. they had left the cove and were seen by Scott and the Prince of Whales boat heading west, just the two of them, out of the area,” said the Pacific Whale Watching Association in a statement.
Frosty was first documented by the Monterey Bay Whale Watch group in August 2019 but has never been seen in B.C. waters, though its mother has previously been spotted near Alert Bay in July 2014.
Researchers say it’s a remarkable distance for a young orca calf to travel.
“The distance between that Mexico sighting in late October 2021 to yesterday’s sighting near Alert Bay/Telegraph Cove is more than 2,500 km — quite the range!” said Erin Gless, PWWA executive director.
The last sighting of the white orca calf was off the Farallones Islands in California on June 26.
Researchers say they aren’t sure why orcas like Frosty are born with their unique pale skin instead of the usual black-and-white pattern, but there have been other orcas with similar conditions.
“One of the first killer whales in this population known to have this white colouration was captured for an aquarium in the 1970’s, and genetic testing showed it had Chediak-Higashi syndrome, which is a rare genetic disorder,” says Jared Towers, a Cetacean Research Technician with DFO Canada.
Tl’uk, who hasn’t been seen since April 2021, is also presumed to have, if not the same, a similar condition.
Researchers confirmed today Tl’uk was presumed dead just a few months ago.
For Frosty, experts say the calf looked to be in great condition, and hope the youngin’ will make the trip back up to B.C. waters again very soon.