Albino animals have it tough: they're sensitive to light, often have health problems associated with genetic mutations and stick out like a sore thumb in their natural habitat. So when Kate Cummings and the crew of Blue Ocean Whale Watch spotted a strikingly white dolphin calf in California's Monterey Bay for the first time in eight months, they were beyond ecstatic. Against all odds, the youngster appears to be healthy and keeping up with the pod. 

The calf, a Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), was last seen back in January. At the time, there was some debate as to whether it was a true albino, but this photo from Cummings confirms it.

Image: Kate Cummings/Blue Ocean Whale Watch

We tend to call any animal that lacks pigment "albino," but many of them fall into another category: "leucistic"Albinism is a condition that causes a complete lack of melanin, the pigment that not only gives colour to skin, but also to the eyes. True albino animals tend to have very pale eyes (often pink or red as the blood vessels show through). Leucisim on the other hand, results in only a partial loss of pigmentation, and doesn't affect the eyes. Because this calf's eyes are pink and not blue, we can safely say it's a true albino.

"We're very happy to see it thriving," Cummings said in a Facebook post. "It was with its mom and about 200 other Risso's near the imaginary line that separates Monterey Bay from the open ocean."

One of the most enigmatic cetaceans, Risso's dolphins can easily be recognised by a stumpy, bulbous head that lacks the "beak" you'd expect to see on a dolphin. As you can see in the video, they're also covered in scars. The circular scars are likely from squid – the dolphins' favourite food – and bites from deep-sea cookiecutter sharks. The dozens of long "tooth rakes" are actually caused by other dolphins in the pod. The animals rake each other during both play and fighting, but it's possible the behaviour also has to do with mating. Because they spend most of their lives offshore, little is known about reproduction in this species. 

One thing we do know is that these dolphins like to party. While they're typically found in groups of about 20 individuals, scientists have observed them in groups 4,000 strong where food is abundant! 


Top header image: Nancy Magnusson/Flickr