Fans of Herman Melville’s 1851 book, Moby Dick, will be interested to know that Melville’s titular character has recently taken shape in real life. As a Dutch sailor recounted spotting a rare white sperm whale in the East Indies, one recalls the legendary villainous whale depicted in one of America’s best-known novels, who haunted the oceans, terrifying sailors for centuries.
On Nov. 29, Leo van Toly was on the deck of a Dutch merchant ship SOS Dolfijn off the coast of Jamaica when he recorded the video of an extremely rare all-white sperm whale grazing the surface of the blue waters of the Caribbean.
In an interview with The Guardian, sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fully white sperm whale.”
“I have seen ones with quite a lot of white on them, usually in patches on and near the belly,” he added.
Sperm whales are usually gray or black in color, with small patches of white on some whales. These 18-meter behemoths have been known to dive to depths of up to 2,000 meters below sea level, holding their breath for up to two hours.
Their famous diet, evidenced by the scars often found on the whales’ bodies, includes the elusive giant squid, which are often depicted in battles against the whales.
Of all the animal kingdom, sperm whales have the largest known brains. All toothed whales’ brains include a large melon, a mass of tissue in their forehead which allows them to use echo-location to generate soundwaves and detect their prey within the darkest depths of the ocean.
The sight of a white whale would instantly draw anyone’s attention, especially those familiar with the aforementioned tale of Moby Dick. In the novel, Moby Dick is a large, monstrous white sperm whale that was hunted by Captain Ahab, who sought revenge against the whale for his lost leg in a previous encounter. The book is read from the perspective of Ishamael, a sailor on Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod.
Moby Dick is often considered a cautionary tale about the evils of resentment carried to an extreme, demonstrating how a man blinded by his obsession for revenge can unintentionally destroy himself and all he cares about.
“It was the whiteness of the whale that appalled me,” Ishmael said when describing the whale.
When thinking about white cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in real-life, beluga whales are one of the first to come to mind. These whales are born a dark grey color, but turn all white sometime after the age of five. Although they’re not as colossal as a sperm whale, their high-pitched clicks earned them the nickname of “sea canaries.”
The white sperm whale, however, is an anomaly. The specimen recently seen in the Caribbean may have experienced a form of either albinism or leucism. Both conditions affect the production of melanin, which is the pigment that gives color to skin. These conditions last a lifetime, but they do not seem to have any harmful effect.
An earlier encounter with a white whale occurred off the coast of Sardinia, Italy, in 2015, adding to the short list of white whale sightings in the 21st century.
In addition, an albino humpback whale named Migaloo first spotted in 1991 off Byron Bay in Australia, continues to show himself to this day.
According to sperm whale expert and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project Shane Gero, it is not known how rare white sperm whales are, but they do “get seen from time to time.”
“Because the ocean is so expansive, scientists are unsure how many white sperm whales exist,” Gero told LiveScience in an email. Sperm whales as a whole are very hard to find and learn about as they often dive deep into the ocean for extended periods.
“It’s easy for a whale to hide, even one that is as long as a school bus,” Gero said. “So even if there were many white whales, we just wouldn’t see them very often.”
With sperm whales listed as vulnerable to extinction, a sighting like this is exciting news. When it recognized that whale populations were being decimated, the International Whaling Commission instituted a pause on commercial whaling starting in 1985. The moratorium has helped restore dwindling whale populations even though Iceland, Norway, and Japan continue to do commercial whaling.