Thar’ she blows! A real-life Moby Dick – the White Wale of legend – has been spotted off the coast of Jamaica.
A rare white sperm whale – the same species as the obsession of Captain Ahab in the famed novel — was spotted by sailors aboard the Dutch oil tanker Coral EnergICE.
The ghostly cetacean was glimpsed only briefly on Nov. 29, when Capt. Leo van Toly recorded a short video highlighting a brief look at the white sperm whale near the water’s surface. He sent the video to his sailing partner, Annemarie van den Berg, director of the whale conservation charity SOS Dolfijn in the Netherlands. After confirming with experts that the whale was indeed a sperm whale, SOS Dolfijn shared the video on the organization’s Facebook page.
In Herman Melville’s famous novel, Moby Dick is a monstrous white sperm whale hunted by the vengeful Captain Ahab, who lost his leg to the toothed whale. The book is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, who famously said, “It was the whiteness of the whale that appalled me” when referring to its paleness. Although Moby Dick was fictional, white sperm whales, while rare, do exist. Their whiteness is the result of either albinism or leucism; both conditions impact the whales’ ability to produce the pigment melanin, which is responsible for their normal gray color.
“We don’t know how rare white sperm whales are,” Shane Gero, a sperm whale expert at Dalhousie University in Canada and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, told the website Live Science in an email. “But they do get seen from time to time.”
Because the ocean is so expansive, scientists are unsure how many white sperm whales exist, Gero said. Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are also extremely elusive and hard to study because of their ability to dive deep into the ocean for long periods of time.
“It’s easy for a whale to hide, even one that is as long as a school bus,” Gero said. “So even if there were many white sperm whales, we just wouldn’t see them very often.”
The last documented sighting of a white sperm whale occurred in 2015 off the Italian island of Sardinia. However, there have also been sightings in the Caribbean and the Azores (in the Atlantic) in recent years, Gero said. It is possible that the one sighted in Jamaica is the same one that was spotted off of Dominica in 2015, but that is unclear, he added.
There are also occasional sightings of white whales among other species — other than belugas, whose normal color is white. An albino humpback whale named Migaloo has been sighted frequently in Australian waters since 1991, according to the Pacific Whale Foundation. And in July, whale watchers in Japan spotted a pair of white killer whales, which were most likely albinos.
Despite potential differences in coloration between albinism and leucism, “there is no way to conclusively tell them apart without genetics,” Gero said. Some researchers believe eye color can also distinguish the two conditions because most albino whales have red eyes, but this is not a guarantee, Gero said.
“The whale in Jamaica is very white, and my guess is it’s an albino — but that’s just my guess,” Gero said.
Sperm whales -of all colors, were once hunted nearly to extinction for their oil.
While that practice has long since faded, as other fuel sources have been developed, they are still currently listed as vulnerable to extinction, but their exact numbers and global population trends are poorly understood because of a lack of data, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).