Rare white sperm whale — like Moby Dick — captured on video

Science

A sperm whale with the same rare colouring as the fictional Moby Dick has been spotted off the coast of Jamaica.

This is a screenshot of the rare white sperm whale, taken from the video posted by SOS Dolfijn.(SOS Dolfijn)

A sperm whale with the same rare colouring as the fictional Moby Dick has been spotted off the coast of Jamaica.

A video of the white whale was posted on Facebook Tuesday by SOS Dolfijn, a rescue organization for stranded whales and dolphins based in the Netherlands.

The distant, blurry video shows some of the whale's white skin and vapour spouting from the whale's blowhole as it surfaces.

SOS Dolfijn said the animal was about 10 metres long and identified it as a sperm whale — the same species as Moby Dick, the famed white whale from American writer Herman Melville's 19th century novel.

Shane Gero, a scientist in residence at Carleton University and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, who has seen the video, confirmed it's "definitely a sperm whale."

SOS Dolfijn said the video had been sent to them by an employee, Annemarie van den Berg. She had received it from her husband, Leo van Toly, the captain of a merchant ship, who had spotted the whale Monday while sailing along the coast of Jamaica, reported Dutch media network RTL Nieuws.

Sperm whales are normally dark grey or brown.

Gero called the sighting of a white sperm whale a rare event. "It's awesome," he said. "Obviously, it's exciting."

Sperm whales are normally brown or grey.(Chris Bangs/Guam Variety News/The Associated Press)

In recent years, an adult white sperm whale has been photographed off the Azores, as well as a calf off Dominica.

The one seen off Jamaica was about the size of an adult female in the Caribbean, Gero said, although it wasn't known whether the whale spotted was male or female. Males grow much larger, up to 18 metres long.

If it is female, it's unlikely to be the same calf seen in Dominica, as female whales live in multi-generational families that don't travel very far within the region, said Gero, who studies the whales' culture, family lives and communication.

Males range farther; male sperm whales spotted in Canada may have come from the Caribbean.

There hasn't been a lot of research on sperm whales off Jamaica, Gero said, but he's quite interested in doing some.

The excitement over the recent sighting and the references to Moby Dick are a reminder of how important whales were to society, he said, particularly in providing fuel in the form of whale oil before fossil fuels existed.

is a book about that whaling industry, where the character Captain Ahab is obsessed with getting revenge on the highly recognizable whale that bit off one of his legs from the knee down.

"It's been a cultural icon, in at least the English-speaking world, for a long, long time," Gero said.

Sperm whales are found throughout the world's oceans and in the Mediterranean Sea. Before commercial whaling, there were about 1.1 million in the world, but the current population is only about 360,000, according to the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

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