Whale-watchers off the coast of California were treated to an extra special sighting last week when they came across an all-white orca calf swimming alongside its family near Newport Harbour. After receiving reports of the unusual find from a Long Beach tour operator, the team from whale-watching company Newport Coastal Adventure scrambled to get to the sighting. Drone operator Charley Fitzwilliam was onboard to capture some wonderful aerial footage of the encounter:

"On just a few hours’ notice, we loaded three boats for a special trip and drove 50 miles before we finally found the CA216 pod," the team wrote in a caption alongside footage of the white calf. Whale-watchers enjoyed a lengthy stay with the orcas as the pod made their way up the coast, sometimes approaching boats for a closer look.

Affectionately known as "Frosty", the pale-coloured calf was born in 2019 and owes its unusual hue to a rare genetic condition. Aside from Frosty's head and dorsal fin, the bulk of the youngster's body is a white-grey colour. 

“There are multiple reasons such patterns occur but genetics is a large factor,” Luke Rendell, a biology lecturer at the University of St Andrews’ sea mammal research unit, told Newsweek. In Frosty's case, the white colouration is caused by a condition called leucism, which results in a partial lack of pigment in the skin. This differs from albinism in which animals appear entirely white and usually have a red or pinkish eye.

The condition is rare in orcas and may come with some complications. In the 1970s a white orca, later nicknamed Chimo, was found in British Columbia. Sadly, she died at a young age as a result of a disease called Chédiak-Higashi syndrome which affects skin colouration, but can also have an impact on the immune system.

For now though, Frosty seems to be doing well and has healthy family members for support. According to Mark Girardeau from Whale and Dolphin Conservation this particular pod has been spotted as far south as Mexico and as far north as Canada.

Top header image: timnutt, Flickr