This grey/white orca T46B1B, nicknamed Tl’uk, was identified by Alaska Sea Adventures off Cape Bendel, Frederick Sound, August 7th, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Hayes)

A Petersburg-based whale watching and charter company has documented a rare white orca swimming the waters of the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska this summer. The young killer whale has been sighted frequently in British Columbia and Washington state as well.

Dennis Rogers is owner of Alaska Sea Adventures, which offers trips on the vessel Northern Song for overnight whale watching and nature tours throughout Southeast.

He was on a charter trip with eight guests cruising along the shoreline of Kuiu and Kupreanof islands west of Petersburg. He said they spotted three orcas, including a white one, along the Kupreanof Island shoreline on August 7th.

“It sure made spotting him easy. When they went down under water, usually they disappear and typically very hard to follow. But having a white one under the water you could see him an easy ten feet below the surface, this big white shape moving along there.”

The boat was able to stay with the whales. Stephanie Hayes is first mate on the Northern Song and a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was able to get some good photographs for identification.

“When the other killer whales of the pod first popped out of the water, it’s exciting of course because orcas are wonderful to see but then I saw kind of a glow under the water and I’m thinking, wow that’s an awfully white killer whale, that’s doing something funny,” Hayes said. “And no it was just genuinely the white killer whale and it popped up and you could hear an audible gasp from everybody on the bow, going oh my gosh what are we seeing here. It was really incredible.”

This orca was born in 2018. Researchers have assigned it a catalogue number 46B1B based on its lineage. But it’s nickname is more poetic. It’s called Tl’uk, a Coast Salish word for “moon.” It’s a greyish moon color, without the typical black and white pattern. It does have intricate markings very visible near its dorsal fin, which also help with an ID.

Scientists call animals like this leucistic which is a different inherited condition than albinism.

“I don’t believe it’s an albino whale,” said Jared Towers, a killer whale researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It’s not quite pure white and it doesn’t have the pink eyes that would indicate albinism. There’s a possibility that it has some kind of rare condition which includes partial albinism but I think it’s probably more so a lack of pigment which is much more common.”

Still Towers calls this animal quite rare, with just two currently alive and just five or six documented in this whale population in the last 80 years or so. Others have been documented closer to Russia.

This whale’s mother and grandmother have ranged up and down the Pacific coast. The family is more commonly seen around Vancouver Island. Towers believes it’s the first trip for this two-year-old into Alaskan waters.

“I think it’s great that the little guy has been seen up there,” Towers said. “He seems to be healthy every time I’ve seen him, he’s looking pretty good and again, not surprising that he has shown up. The family has a long sightings history in that area as well as BC and Puget Sound, Washington and even as far south as Oregon.”

He notes killer whales travel quickly and it’s likely this group could be seen back near Vancouver Island in just a couple weeks.

There are multiple distinct types of orcas, which eat different food. Resident whales focus on fish. Other rare offshore orcas are shark eaters. But this animal belongs to the meat eaters, or Bigg’s killer whales, also called transients. They feast on porpoises, dolphins, sea lions and seals.

This pod was also observed swimming the shoreline of Mitkof Island near Petersburg. The Northern Song’s Hayes was able to get more photographs closer to Petersburg and observed some feeding.

“So right outside Sandy Beach the pod was making a kill, presumably on seals,” Hayes said. “And then right off of City Creek, we were able to watch the pod make what looked like another kill, another hunt in that area also.”

Sightings continued near Petersburg drawing photographers and whale enthusiasts to the Frederick Sound shoreline.