A rare white orca calf that was seen earlier this year near Nanaimo was seen again in the Strait of Juan de Fuca over the weekend.
Tl’uk, whose name means “moon” in Coastal Salish, made an appearance on Saturday off the Washington coast, according to Island Adventures Whale Watching based in Anacortes, Wash.
The young orca is a member of the T46B Bigg’s (transient) killer whale family, which feeds on marine mammals like seals and sea lions.
Tl’uk was swimming with a large group of Bigg’s killer whales on Saturday. But he was first spotted in November 2018 and is about a year old. He looks like a killer whale with a grey-white film.
Researchers say the calf is not an albino killer whale. Albinos are typically all white and have no pigment in their eyes.
Tl’uk may have a condition called leucism, a partial loss of pigmentation. He could also be affected with Chediak-Higashi syndrome, a genetic condition that causes partial albinism as well as a number of medical complications, but researchers would have to look into the condition further.
Bigg’s killer whales travel between southern California and Alaska. Island Adventures Whale Watching said while Bigg’s killer whales typically travel in small family groups of four to seven animals, Capt. Carl Williams of Island Adventures Whale Watching reported at least 30 individuals spread out over several miles on Saturday.
Nearly ten different orca families were seen, including one rarely-seen group first photographed off California in the late 1990s and the other family that includes Tl’uk.
“This week, 2019 officially passed 2018 for Bigg’s killer whale sightings in the Salish Sea.” Monika Wieland Shields, president of Orca Behavior Institute, said in the statement. “This will be the eight year in a row of increased transients in the region, with their presence having increased five-fold over that time. To put that in perspective, there were 125 reports of Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea in all of 2011. This year, we reached 125 reports before the end of April.”
On Friday afternoon, Orca Network, a local non-profit sightings network, received reports of J pod of the endangered southern resident orcas in the Puget Sound. Those orcas have been foraging throughout the weekend near Seattle, briefly delaying ferry service near Elliot Bay. As of Sunday morning, the southern residents are still in Puget Sound near Edmonds, Wash.
Unlike Bigg’s killer whales, southern resident numbers are declining. There are now only 73 southern resident orcas. There is a scarcity of suitable chinook salmon prey for the southern residents. However, the population has welcomed two new calves this year.