A few weeks ago we had a white Southern Right Whale calf passing through our bay with its mother. What does it mean to be a “white” whale? “Is this a problem for the calf?”
Being white or an albino (latin word albus meaning white) happens when the skin is lacking pigment due to absence of tyrosinase (an enzyme involved in production of melanin). Albinism is inheritable and is seen in all vertebrates (animals with a vertebra). There are different forms of albinism. Organisms with complete absence of melanin are called albinos and organisms with a low level of melanin are albinoids.
Being an albino creates problems, first of all camouflage protection disappears. It’s only good to be white if you live in or around ice like the Polar Bear and snow hares since you will be camouflaged against the white snow. Secondly, albinos are at greater risk of skin diseases since they don’t have protection in the skin.
In Plettenberg bay we had a white Southern Right whale calf this season. This is an amazing sight to see. In the Southern Right Whales 3.5% of the calves are born White. They are not completely white as they have a black collar round the neck and black spots along the body. When they grow older they will turn gray and looks more bridle in color. This happens to the Southern Right whales because of a recessive gene that affects males (94% of the white calves are male). The chance of a female calf being born white is small because for it to happen a white male need to be mating with a female that have gray patches on them so both have the recessive gene of whiteness. This in only seen in the Southern Right whales, not in the Northern Right whales.