23rd April 2012: In the North Pacific, east of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the Commander Islands, the first-ever adult all-white, probably albino, orca bull has been observed by scientists from the universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The scientists of this international science project, studying acoustic and social complexity in whale and dolphin populations in the region, called this unique orca ”Iceberg” after they saw his towering 2-meter white dorsal fin breaking the surface.
Iceberg has been found to live in a family unit, also called a pod, with 12 relatives. His pod is one of 61 identified social orca units in the region based on 12 years of research by the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP).
The area around the Commander Islands, where Iceberg was first seen, is protected as Russia’s largest marine reserve. There are plans to expand it, and the scientists are suggesting that it should form part of a network of reserves to give protection to the critical habitat of various whale, dolphin and porpoise species off eastern Russia. Such a call is in response to local overfishing in some areas, and increased oil and gas exploration, which poses a threat to marine mammals from increasing noise levels, ship traffic and potential oil spills. As noise levels increase, the ability of whales to communicate over long distances may be compromised.
“In many ways, Iceberg is a symbol of all that is pure, wild and extraordinarily exciting about what is out there in the ocean waiting to be discovered,” says Erich Hoyt, FEROP co-director and Research Fellow from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. “The challenge is to keep the ocean healthy so that such surprises are always possible.”
A key part of FEROP research focuses on the nature of the unique dialects of orcas. Moscow State University biologist Dr. Olga Filatova who gained her PhD through FEROP in 2005, is currently first author on an international paper published in March in Animal Behaviour on the evolution of the vocal repertoires, comparing the dialects of orca communities, or populations of the species, across the North Pacific. “Different kinds of sounds are used for different purposes,” says Filatova, “ranging from close-range communication to long-range calls that may function more to keep a pod together.”
The team around Filatova is now looking for scientific proof that the resident fish-eating orca pods, such as Iceberg’s pod, and the transient marine-mammal-eating orcas, are separate species. “The conclusions will have strong implications for the conservation of the species,” says Filatova. “If they can be shown to be two species, which many think they probably are, then each one will require a separate conservation plan with potentially greater concern and benefits for both species.”
Researchers and conservationists hope that the uniqueness of Iceberg will contribute towards awareness for the need to protect orcas and other cetacean species in the region.
We made this video to help spread the research by the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP).
To learn more about orcas in Russian waters (English and Russian): www.russianorca.org