May 29, 2019 8:59 pm
Updated: May 29, 2019 9:06 pm

Move over, Moby Dick: rare white ‘ghost orca’ spotted near Nanaimo

A white-coloured orca calf spotted near Nanaimo on Tuesday.

Vancouver Island Whale Watch

Move over, Moby Dick. There’s a new white whale in town.

The jury is still out on exactly what the cause is, but a white transient (Bigg’s) killer whale spotted near Nanaimo on Tuesday is already making waves.

READ MORE: Orca sighting in Vancouver inner harbour shows health of transient killer whale population: researcher

Val Watson, a marine naturalist with Vancouver Island Whale Watch, says she spotted the approximately one-year-old calf about five minutes out of the city’s harbour.

“I noticed there was something a little bit off about one of the whales. It had a bit of a different colouration; I didn’t know if it was just light playing a trick on me,” she said.

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“But once we got up beside them in actual position, it turned out it was a white whale, so really, really incredible.”

Watson said the calf, known as T46-B1B, has been spotted before, and looked normal when it was born. She said documentation of it starting to get more pale began to pop up about a month ago.

“As time’s gone on, it seems like he’s getting more white,” she said.

Awkward teen phase?

One possible explanation for little B1B’s changing colour is a common rite of passage for humans: acne — of a sort.

Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena said orca experts have begun to document a recurring skin issue in the transient orcas’ cousins, the southern resident killer whales.

READ MORE: ‘We were mesmerized’: Video captures orcas hunting sea lions just metres off B.C. beach

“This whale looks like it has — for lack of a better word — what we’ve been calling grey patch disease or grey patch syndrome. It’s really extensive and it’s really, really grey, so it’s difficult to say if it’s the same thing,” he said.

“[Grey patch] might be the equivalent of, like, acne in teenage humans. Most of the whales seem to resolve that issue and go on to be fairly normal-looking as well.”

WATCH: New concerns about southern resident killer whale

Haulena said the syndrome is believed to be caused by a swelling of the skin which creates the greyish appearance.

He added that the greyness in B1B is far more extensive than he has observed before, and that without taking a skin biopsy from the calf, it’s impossible to know if it is the same condition.

READ MORE: Habitat protection widened for endangered killer whales off Vancouver Island

“It’s certainly something very weird-looking,” he said.

But weird or not, Watson said whale watchers have been delighted at the sight of the calf, who’s already begun to rack up nicknames like Casper.

“A lot of people think he looks like a ‘ghost orca,'” she said.

— With files from Lynda Aylesworth

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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