In May 2021, observers at Newport Landing Whale Watching in Newport Beach, California, spotted something incredibly rare. Out at sea, their boat was joined by a pod of 40 Risso’s dolphins around 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) from Laguna Beach. Among the many gray dolphins was one in brilliant white, which the team at Newport Landing Whale Watching suspected to be an adult Risso’s dolphin with either albinism or leucism.
Risso’s dolphins begin life like little gray olives, all dark and smooth. As they grow, they often lighten up as their skin gets marked by the teeth of other Risso’s, for whom tooth scratching is a social behavior. They also get scars from squid, one of their favorite foods, as their beaks and tentacles leave marks on their skin. Not so olive-smooth anymore, but still with prominent patches of gray.
The Risso’s dolphin seen off Laguna Beach, however, was something rather different. Far from simply having had all its color erased by the teeth and beaks of friends and foes, this dolphin was likely a leucistic individual. Leucism is a condition seen across the animal kingdom where mother nature prints them out using fewer pigments. The condition can lead to either all-white or lighter appearances compared to the more conventional colorway of the species in question.
It’s also possible the animal is an albino, which means they lack pigment entirely, sometimes also resulting in red or pink eyes. This particular individual was last seen in July 2020, and, before that, off the coast of San Diego in 2017.
“It’s unknown if the dolphin is a true albino or if it may be leucistic, it certainly stands out from the other normally colored Risso’s dolphins, and is easily spotted on the water,” said Jessica Roane of Newport Landing Whale Watching. “Risso’s dolphins are born dark gray and tend to lighten up as they age… However, our white Risso’s dolphin spotted today was completely unique in color!”
Risso’s dolphins aren’t the only marine animal spotted sporting a paler than usual get-up in Earth’s oceans. Everything from great white sharks to turtles and penguins (remember this lemon mering-uin?) have been found with unusually pale skin and feathers, most likely as the result of leucism or albinism.
While leucism doesn’t appear to have a direct negative effect on health, looking out of place is a less than desirable trait when trying to survive in the wild. As the Newport Landing Whale Watching team expressed, spotting these animals can be easier as they’re not camouflaged with the same coloring as their pod pals. Furthermore, it’s possible the alternative appearance could hamper their chances of finding a mate.