A white sperm whale was recently spotted off the coast of Jamaica. The video, recorded by a Dutch merchant sailor, brings to life Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, except for the fact that this white whale seemed totally relaxed.
Almost drifting near the surface, the white of the whale’s back is unmistakable and wonderful, but the reasons for its whiteness is not what one might think.
Albino animals are fascinating, and generally speaking, white animals are almost always more charismatic than forest-colored ones. White horses, white lions, white tigers, white wolves, albino pythons, snow leopards, polar bears—these animals capture our imagination in unique ways.
Normally grey or black, a white sperm whale, like those other animals mentioned, isn’t necessarily an albino. Like horses, many sperm whales can have patches of white on their back, head, stomach or flanks, but indeed they can even be all white and not be albino. It’s called Leucism, an irregular distribution of melanin pigments in the skin that affects many animals, like tigers, lions, and horses, but which doesn’t include the pink or red eyes of a true albino.
The advantage of a whale being white is that whales are, even on the scale of the world’s oceans, very big, and scientists often see and meet individuals many times over during their lifetimes swimming around. One such whale, an albino sperm whale who shows up occasionally on the Italian coast of Sardinia, was seen in 2006, and then again nine years later.
“Migaloo” was first sighted off Byron Bay, Australia in 1991, and is thought to be the only pure white humpback whale alive today.
The name Migaloo was given to the whale, which DNA testing revealed was a true albino, by Aboriginal Australians, and means “white fella.”
The elders explained the connection we have to white or albino animals is the feeling inside that all creatures must be respected regardless of their perceived “normality.”
Sperm whales have the biggest teeth in the animal kingdom. They also have the biggest brains, and can pass down a unique cetacean culture that includes dialects of their clicking language.
In Melville’s book, the white whale Moby Dick bites off Captain Ahab’s leg, sending him on a worldwide quest for vengeance.
The book is special for many reasons, not least because of how much powerful imagery Ahab, and by extension Melville, imbue into the whale.