“We were just drifting when I noticed the smaller whale in the pod was white. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I just grabbed my camera,” Wayne Fewings said in a statement issued by the government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
“Then the white calf approached my boat, seeming to want to check us out. I was just so amazed at seeing this animal. …”
The weeks-old calf, likely born in northern waters of the Great Barrier Reef (see regional map below) lacks melanin pigment in its skin, according to Mark Read, species-conservation manager for the Australian agency.
Map courtesy National Geographic’s “The World” iPad app
An animal that does not produce melanin, resulting in little or no color in the skin, hair, and eyes, is considered an albino.
“To speculate on the animal’s parents is difficult, but what we can say is that this calf is the offspring from two animals that were carrying the white [melanin-lacking] gene, resulting in this unique white calf,” he said in the statement.
Read suspects there are about 10 to 15 white humpbacks in the region’s population of between 13,000 to 15,000 animals. Albinism occurs across nature, as well as in humans. There are albino toads, cows, gorillas, bats, alligators—even plants, including the redwood tree.
With such a striking lack of color, surviving in the wild is difficult for albino animals—for instance, albino alligators make an obvious target for predators, and most are eaten before they reach adulthood.
That’s part of the reason why albinos often end up in zoos around the world—and some are even considered valuable. In 2008, for instance, smugglers in Brazil nabbed seven albino alligators, at the time valued at about U.S. $9,700 apiece, according to the Associated Press.
Albinos are not to be confused with animals that have extremely rare genetic aberrations that make them white.
Take the spirit bear (also known as the Kermode bear), a white variant of the North American black bear that lives in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest and was featured in the August issue of National Geographic magazine. (Though, as the writer points out, the bear’s white fur is “more like a vanilla-colored carpet in need of a steam cleaning.”)
White tigers and lions, often seen in zoos, are also in this category. Because the propagation of white tigers in captivity requires inbreeding, their presence in zoos, parks, and theaters is controversial among animal-welfare groups, National Geographic News reported in 2009. (See a picture of a white tiger diving underwater in 2009.)
As for the white calf spotted near the Great Barrier Reef, Read told Agence France-Presse that Australia has no plans to name the rare animal.
“We’d be pretty comfortable for him or her just to simply remain anonymous,” Read said, “and just live out its life in relative peace and harmony.”
Read more National Geographic News stories about albino animals (and one that’s just whiter than most) :