Tl’uk, a rare, low-pigment transient orca was spotted in Alaska waters last week. (Courtesy of Stephanie Hayes.)

Rare white orca spotted hunting off shores of Alaska for first time

Tl'uk seems healthy and strong, says researcher

  • Aug. 15, 2020 12:00 a.m.

A transient orca named after the luminescence of the moon made a surprise appearance in Alaska last week, much to the delight of the area’s researchers and whale-enthusiasts.

Known to scientists as T46-B1B, the rare white orca Tl’uk – a Coast Salish Halq’eméylem name for moon – was born in 2018 and has been spotted as far south as the Puget Sound and as of Aug. 7, as far north as Alaska.

Marine biologist Stephanie Hayes spotted the rare whale from the whale-watching and research vessel Northern Song, where she was working.

The crew was looking for humpback whales near Juneau when they spotted an orca off the coast of Kake. Soon they realized they had found a pod of transients. Then Hayes noticed a “white glow” in the water.

“As the blob got closer to the surface, his dorsal fin broke the water and everyone gasped,” she recalled. “We were shocked to see a white killer whale, it was incredible.”

Hayes checked with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and learned it was the first sighting of the whale that far north. But the excitement wasn’t over.

RELATED: Rare white orca spotted in Strait of Juan de Fuca

Only a few days later Hayes had her second encounter from the shore of Petersburg. This time she was able to capture more images and videos of the elusive white orca.

“We got to actively watch Tl’uk successfully hunt harbour seals,” she said. “He looked like a healthy member of the pod and was successfully hunting seals, which is excellent.”

While the cause of Tl’uk’s fair complexion is still unknown, Hayes said she and her research colleagues believe Tl’uk has luecism, a condition that dims pigmentation. The whale is not entirely white, his spots are still visible but his skin’s pigment is muted.

In October Tl’uk was spotted off the waters of Nanaimo by a Port Angeles whale watching group.

Hayes said as Tl’uk gets older, scientists will be able to further document the impacts of his colour on his ability to thrive. She, and others, have raised concerns that as a more visible whale, solo hunting could be trickier.

“Now that Tl’uk is ranging the full range of the pod – from Washington to Alaska – we can hopefully learn what happens to white killer whales. Are they able to hunt? Are they accepted by other pods? Do they become healthy adult individuals?”

Even if Tl’uk and his pod don’t stay in the area long, Hayes is hopeful she’ll see the moon-like whale again.

“It’s just wonderful to see him healthy and with his pod.”

RELATED: Footage of rare white orca captured by drone near Campbell River


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