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White orca spotted at Telegraph Cove, far from California home

The young orca, dubbed Frosty, and her pod have been seen several times off California — and even as far south as Tijuana, Mexico

A rare white orca was spotted in Telegraph Cove on Wednesday, about 2,000 kilometres from its usual home off the waters of southern California.

The young orca CA216C1, dubbed Frosty, was with her mother and swimming with other transient killer whales, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Scott Turton, a captain for Prince of Whales whale-watching in Telegraph Cove, was on an evening tour observing Bigg’s orcas when he noticed a nearly all-white animal among the pods.

Turton initially thought it might be T46B1B, or Tl’uk, a white orca known throughout the Salish Sea, but after getting photos and checking markings, found it was not.

He recalled another white orca that had been seen several times off California — and even as far south as Tijuana, Mexico, last October — and reached out to researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger of the California Killer Whale Project.

She confirmed it was Frosty.

At one point Wednesday, the California orcas branched off on their own and went to shallow water in Beaver Cove.

Resident Mike Dobbs watched the orcas linger in a shallow bay. He said they “were nearly on the on the beach for a while” just floating and vocalizing.

The mother and her white offspring headed north to Alert Bay, he said.

Frosty was first reported by Monterey Bay Whale Watch in August 2019, but has never been officially documented in B.C. waters. A post from the California Killer Whale Project indicates her mother, CA216C, was seen near Alert Bay in July 2014 with her family.

“The distance between that Mexico sighting in late October 2021 to yesterday’s sighting near Alert Bay/Telegraph Cove is more than 2,500 kilometres, which is quite the range,” said Erin Gless, Pacific Whale Watch Association executive director.

Prior to Wednesday, the last sighting of Frosty was off the Farallones near San Francisco on June 26.

It’s thought the orca’s unusual colouration could be caused by Chédiak-Higashi syndrome, a rare immune disorder characterized by reduced skin pigment.

It’s not the first orca that has been seen in the Salish Sea with a similar condition.

In addition to Tl’uk, a well-documented young Bigg’s orca who hasn’t been seen since April 2021, there was also Chimo, who was captured at Pedder Bay and kept at Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay from 1970 to 1972.

Whale-watching operator Paul Pudwell photographed Tl’uk in the waters off Sooke for two days in September 2020.

The young whale, whose name comes from the Coast Salish Halq’eméylem word for moon, was thought to be two years old at the time.

The young whale had previously been reported off the tip of Vancouver Island and off the southeast coast of Alaska.

Pudwell said he was the first to photograph Tl’uk near Sooke in November 2018.

Only 10 orcas have been documented with Chédiak-Higashi syndrome worldwide, including a pair off the coast of Japan in 2021. But how many are currently alive isn’t known.

Little is known about any of the white orcas because there are so few and they move quickly. Scientists believe the white orcas may be at a disadvantage while hunting because their colouration may alert prey.

Bigg’s orcas can travel up to 160 kilometres a day and are always on the move hunting seals, seal lions and porpoises.

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