Something different was in the water of Frederick Sound near Kake on Aug. 7.
The 84-foot expedition yacht Northern Song operated by the Petersburg-based Alaska Sea Adventures was observing humpback whales cruising along the shoreline near Cape Bendel when the dorsal fin of a male killer whale was spotted about a quarter-mile away.
“So we said, ‘Wow there are killer whales, let's head over there,’” said Stephanie Hayes, the first mate aboard the Northern Song who’s also working on a doctoral dissertation with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
As they neared the pod, they could see the classic black and white forms of the pod member.
“But we saw this glowing white color under the water, very close to the pod,” said Hayes. “And we thought there's something odd going on here. And as that blob came up to the surface, a white dorsal fin broke the surface and a white killer whale appeared. And everyone just gasped at the incredibleness of what we were witnessing.”
What they were seeing was Tl’uk, an approximately 2-year-old member of the T046 Bigg’s (transient) killer whale pod that ranges from Washington state to Lynn Canal.
The subject of broad interest and news coverage since first observed in late 2018, Tl’uk was making its first visit to Alaska, said Hayes, who cited information from Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans Cetacean Research Technician Jared Towers.
Aug. 7 was the first sighting of Tl’uk in Alaska, and only the second sighting of a white killer whale in Alaska, Hayes said.
The pod kept very close to the rocky shoreline, exhibiting what appeared to be hunting behaviors, she said. The Northern Song kept pace from a distance.
“At one point, they circled out to deep water where we were,” Hayes said. “And as we sat there, they came in and swam, right along our starboard side, up the entire length of the boat, looking at us. It was a beyond-incredible moment.”
She estimated that Tl’uk — named for the coastal Salish word for “moon” — was between 8 to 10 feet in length, about one-third the length of a full-grown, 30-foot animal.
At about 2 years of age, Tl’uk is still very young.
“It's weaned. But it's still, it's very close to the pod and it's not going to be mature ‘til probably around seven years,” she said.
Hayes emphasized that the white orca is not an albino. Rather, she believes that Tl’uk’s color stems from a condition called leucism, a partial loss of pigmentation.
While Hayes was thrilled with the Aug. 7 sighting, it wouldn’t be the last.
On Monday, Hayes was at home in Petersburg when she got a call from Northern Song captain Dennis Rogers, who said the pod and Tl’uk were along the shoreline there.
“So I jumped in my truck and got my camera and raced over and just started running along the shoreline ... because the whole pod was hunting and making kills quite close to the shoreline,” Hayes said. “... And I followed them for about an hour and a half before they swam off to deeper waters.”
She noted that transient orcas feed on marine mammals, and conjectured that the T406 pod of six individuals might have been making its way to the LeConte Fiord “where all the seals are hanging out on the ice.”
“Not a good day to be a seal,” she said.
Hayes said she contacted the Daily News because of the potential for the pod to pass through the Ketchikan area on its way back south. That would provide opportunities for the collection of more data.
“If anyone does see Tl’uk and his pod again, which we're fingers-crossed (hoping) because we know nothing about white killer whales because they were so incredibly rare,” she said, “please send in dorsal-fin pictures to (happywhale.com), the citizen science outreach group.”
Hayes said Happy Whale is a public database that scientists can use for research.
“All you need to do is send in a picture and a time and a date and a place, and they can use your data to help learn more about white killer whales and whales and porpoises in general,” she said.