Our eyes often play tricks on us, and it’s common for whitecaps—foam produced when the crests of waves break—to fool us into thinking we have seen something in the water that’s not really there. But a recently spotted flash of white, peeking through the dark ripples of Florida’s Indian River, turned out to be much more than an illusion: It was a rare albino dolphin.
The animal, which was a bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus), was caught on film back in December by Danielle Carter, a wildlife volunteer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The short video shows the snow-white dolphin breaking the surface several times near a shoreline of mangroves in an estuary off Florida’s east coast. Although the video has been posted online, the FWC declined to disclose the exact location to prevent people from harassing it.
According to Blair Mase, a marine mammal stranding coordinator, the dolphin was probably herding fish, such as sea trout or mullet, into the shallow waters to feed. Although the footage doesn’t give away much more, Mase thinks that the animal is likely a subadult, meaning it is probably a few years old. While the animal has a distinct white coloration that is suggestive of albinism, it is possible that the dolphin is not a true albino.
Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that causes a lack of melanin in the body, which is the pigment that gives color to the skin, hair and eyes. Depending on the degree of albinism, individuals may have white or light skin and pale blue or red eyes. Sometimes, animals do possess melanin, but it is only expressed in certain regions of the body. These white animals look like albinos at first glance, but they are not true albinos and have dark eyes.
Most forms of albinism are recessive, meaning that individuals must inherit one abnormal gene from each parent in order to have the condition. Albinism in animals is rare, and marine mammals are no exception. Although the condition has been observed in 20 species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), there have only been 14 previous sightings of albino bottlenose dolphins in the last 50 years.
“These are animals that we see along our coastline in our estuaries, and to hear about one that’s albino is quite unique,” Mase tells Live Science. “But it does attract a lot of attention, and that is one of our concerns.” NOAA advises that people should stay 50 yards away from dolphins in the wild and shouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes viewing them in order to avoid any distress.
While the dolphin appears to be healthy, albinism can often cause problems for animals in the wild. The lack of pigment means that albinos are prone to sunburn, and their distinct color often makes them much more visible to predators.