The Pink DolphinThursday, 2nd April 2020
By JAKE KEETON
Over the last three years I have played witness to some amazing animal behavior and rare sightings in Algoa Bay. From Orcas hunting a Brydes whale to thousands of Long Beaked Common Dolphins chasing down sardines. You just never know what you might see during any one of our cruises.
These pictures are of the most surprising and unique sighting that we have had in the past three years, a Pink Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin Calf. On this day we arrived at St Croix to find a large pod of dolphins milling up and down the Western side of St Croix (named 'Lovers Lane' because of frequent observations of mating).
As the large pod approached our boat myself and our guests stood patiently along the side of our boat, excited with cameras in hand. After spending a few minutes with the pod one of our guests shouted out, "there's a pink one". I turned only to catch a glimpse of pink in the direction the gentleman was pointing. My initial thought was that perhaps one of the dolphins was carrying a deceased calf which after some time can appear pink (something we had observed a few weeks prior). I couldn't have been more wrong.
We scanned around the boat hoping to get a better look. Just as we were about to move on, there it was, a young Bottlenose calf, light pink color with distinct black spots all over its body, very much alive and swimming happily next to mum. My jaw dropped! I could not believe my eyes. I explained to our guests that this is something I have never seen before and that we need to make every effort to capture a picture of the calf and that it was not going to be easy. Our guests on board proved to be a huge help as they all kept a lookout for the calf and pointed me in the direction they last spotted it. After some time with no luck I resorted to changing the settings on my Nikon so that the whole picture would be in focus (F8) and snapped away at any adult dolphin I saw nearing the surface to take a breath. My thinking was that eventually one of them would be the calf's mother. Young Bottlenose calves stick close to mum and often break the surface a few split seconds after the her. After what felt like ages I finally got it right.
After doing some research online and consulting cetacean experts this sighting seems to be the only one of it's kind. The young calf is not an albino and it does have some pigment (the black spots). At this stage we do not have a scientific explanation for the appearance of this calf. If you are able to shed some light on the matter or if you have observed this animal in another area please leave a comment or contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org
I keep coming back to look at these photos. The small size of the calf and uniqueness of its coloration makes it one of the most beautiful specimens I've ever seen. The best part is that I know there are more incredible experiences awaiting us out in Algoa Bay, what could be next?
and to add to the above....
After having such an amazing response to our first Facebook post about the Pink Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Calf we have decided to post this update with some information we have managed to find. Together with some explanations to the calf's unique appearance.
Since our previous post we have not received any reports of another sighting of the calf. The general consensus is that no one has ever seen anything like it. Multiple sources also expressed concern for the health of the calf. The shape of the body behind the head suggests that the calf is quite thin. The coloration of this calf comes down to genetics. There are many examples of Albinism and Leucism in the animal kingdom. Briefly before I continue, Albinism occurs when cells that normally make the pigment melanin, responsible for skin, hair and eye color, fail to produce it at normal levels or at all. Leucism, a lesser yet more rare form of albinism is rather a partial loss of pigmentation in an animal resulting in dull or broken up coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle, with no effect on eye color. Two telltale signs to recognize Albinism and Leucism are reddish colored eyes and blood vessels that show through the pale skin.
Marine ecologist, Mr Robert Pitman from the Marine Mammal Institute based in Oregon had the following to say: ”Your dolphin appears to be a partial albino ('leucistic' as someone pointed out) – something that shows up in most or all species of cetaceans occasionally. When resting, it is probably white, but when exerting itself, blood flows to the skin and turns it pink, as is evident in your photos. I would also point out that there is some constriction behind the blowhole, which usually means it is not feeding normally. It does not bode well for the calf.”
There is a famous white humpback whale in Australia called “Migaloo” (note the fourth picture below) which means “white fellow” in some Aboriginal languages. Migaloo has been sighted numerous times off the coast of Australia. This whale is almost completely white but is hypo pigmented rather than an albino. They are referred to as leucistic and lack the enzyme that produces pigmentation as opposed to an albino that completely lacks pigmentation.
We too have seen a predominantly white humpback whale in Algoa Bay. Owner of Raggy Charters, Lloyd Edwards was the one to experience this special sighting, Lloyd said: ”It was my first sighting of a white humpback whale in 22 years of running Raggy Charters”. Lloyd decided to name the whale “Umlungu”, which means white man in Xhosa. It comes from the white foam on the sea which blows ashore after a storm, which is how the first European settlers received this name. Lloyd managed to capture a photograph of “Umlungu”. (note the fifth picture below).
Together with the occasional special encounter that we have with white whales and dolphins we do have some more permanent leucistic residents in our bay. The sixth picture below is of a leucistic African Penguin on St Croix island. We always keep a sharp eye out for these unique looking individuals during our licensed whale and dolphin watching cruises to St Croix island.
After scouring the internet for a few days I found what I believe to be the closest match to the little calf we saw. The seventh and eighth pictures below are of a subspecies of Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins in Hong Kong. Note the light pink skin color with grey spots on the face of the one individual, similar to the calf we saw. We too have Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins in our bay. Ours however are Grey in appearance, only getting lighter in color as they grow older. Note the ninth picture below showing the white patches close to the dorsal fin.
We consider ourselves extremely lucky to be able to venture out into Algoa Bay and on any particular day have the chance to come across something truly special and unique. We just never know what may be awaiting us on our next cruise.
Despite the worrying signs we are hopeful that the calf is still going strong and some lucky people will get the chance to see it. We will be sure to keep you updated should we have any reports of the calf being sighted a second time. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts of our sightings when we get back out into our special bay.
As we all know there are many negative issues currently facing us and the marine environment. It is important for us to not let these issues overshadow the beauty and wonders of the environment that is here for all of us to enjoy. It is easy to become depressed and lose hope when you see the magnitude of the threats to our marine life. The key to preserving our environment is to be smart in our approach and prevent future problems. Taking a proactive approach makes any task seem less daunting. Witnessing the beauty of our environment is one of the strongest motivations for anyone in conservation, seeing a pink dolphin for example. We need to balance our time between enjoying our environment and doing our part to protect it.
One of our current conservation projects is trying to save the shark population in South Africa’s waters. We have set up an online petition that anyone can sign to show their support of the notion. However, we are struggling to get the number of signatures that we need in order to make a difference. We need the signatures to reach hundreds of thousands for our petition to have the desired impact. Currently we only have ten thousand signatures. Today I am asking anyone who reads this to take a quick moment to sign and share our petition at the link below. We have witnessed the sharing power that all of us have with our last post of the pink calf reaching over 50 000 individuals in a matter of days. I extend thanks to anyone who shared that post and hope you enjoyed reading about something that we thought was amazing. I am now asking you to share our petition, let’s do our part and take action now. Uncapped exploitation of our sharks will and is already having a devastating effect on our marine ecosystems which will impact on all other creatures.
Thank you for your continued support. The Raggy Charters team.