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Leucistic (white) Harbour porpoise & Snowy Owl off the Blaskets.

Leucistic White Harbour Porpoise
leucistic harbour porpoise in Dingle Bay

Leucistic White Harbour Porpoise & Snowy White Owl off Dingle Peninsula



What animal is so rare that only 35 have been recorded worldwide in the last 100 yrs. and of the 15 recorded in the North Atlantic two have been recorded by Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours, Ventry Harbour, Co. Kerry?

From a cetacean point of view you would be inclined to answer this question as some species of beaked whale from the deep ocean canyons, that have only ever been recorded (apart from fossil-only identified species) dead stranded, and never actually recorded live in the wild. But the species we  refer to is an anomalous member of the humble Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) family or more particularly an anomalous white leucistic harbour porpoise only 15 of which have been recorded in the North Atlantic in the last 100 yrs. and twice in 2018 and 2019 by the crew of the dolphin and whale watching tour boat M.V. "Blasket Princess" while on a scheduled Afternoon Eco Marine Tour around Dingle Bay, West Kerry from Ventry Harbour!
We feel that we have the right to name this rarely occurring animal, twice seen by us on our tours as ........"Micilín Bán".
["Muc mara (sea pig) is the Gaelic name for a Harbour porpoise and Micilín muc is a common Gaelic appellation for a pig, after whose facial features and  snorting or puffing habit, the animal is named in Gaelic, so Micilín Bán ( white Micilín) seems appropriate in the circumstances].

The fascination with anomalous white leucistic cetaceans ( from "anomaly" meaning "out of the ordinary") goes back a long way, most famously in the case of Herman Melville's novel "Moby Dick" which was based on the fabled "Mocha Dick", a great white  male sperm whale hunted for off Mocha on the coast of Chile in the 1830s that is reputed to have sunk twenty whaling ships and when finally killed had the traces of 17 harpoons embedded in its skin!

More recently a male white leucistic humpback whale known as "Migaloo" [ native Aboriginal Australian for "white fella"] has been haunting the waters off eastern Australia and New Zealand especially off Cape Byron, eastern Australia

There was also a male white leucistic orca (killer whale) known as "Iceberg" who frequented the far north eastern waters of Russia.

The phenomenon of leucism is an anomalous genetic mutation that results in lack of pigmentation in the skin and is distinct from albinism which is a lack of melanin and also affects lack of colouration in the eyes and appears to be hereditary from two parents carrying the same gene.

Below is a record of nine (more to follow) of the known 15 sightings of white harbour porpoises in the North Atlantic in the last 100 yrs.
1928 - Scotland
1929 - Scotland
1937 - Denmark
1988 - Ireland [Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry]
2015 - Cornwall
2017 - Portugal [mouth of Douro river]
2018 - Scotland
2018 - Ireland [ Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry]
2019 - Ireland [Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry]


"Micilín Bán" and his Travelling Companions

Our animal "Micilín Bán" when spotted was accompanied by another normally pigmented (black) mother and calf and the question is ..... Is he local? a travelling vagrant ( e.g. Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall)?; or part of a vagrant family group? The animal did not appear shy, as usual with porpoises, and appeared comfortable in the small family group. Also the animal appeared to seek out and approach the boat and as usual with white leucistic cetaceans generally, appeared to be a male c.f "Mocha Dick", "Migaloo", "Iceberg", "Micilín Bán" are all male giving rise to the conjecture that perhaps the (cetacean) parents of a female Leucistic cetacean calf may engage in filicide by neglect or direct infanticide, whereas the same fate may not befall male leucistic cetacean new born as the parents may be aware that the  genetic mutation may not carry through in the male line?

Considering that Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours has been involved for over a decade in the tri annual survey of Harbour porpoises in the Blasket Islands SAC [Special Area of Conservation] for the NPWS [National Parks & Wildlife Services] as survey vessel for the IWDG [Irish Whale & Dolphin Group] who were in charge of the survey for the NPWS, we never saw in all those repeated 12 hr. transects of this area any sign of this white leucistic Harbour porpoise even though all the surveys were carried out in near calm sea conditions of sea states 1 and 2.

This points to a vagrant status for the animal or small family group and we hope to examine photo id of each of the  most recent sightings of white leucistic harbour porpoises in 2015; 2017; 2018 X 2; 2019 to see if it is the same or different animal on each occasion

Normally Harbour porpoises have a lifespan of about 20 yrs. depending of course on health profile and lifestyle, as in humans - obviously they do not smoke, or drink too many cocktails (!) but may for instance live close to the heated water outflow of a nuclear or industrial plant which may shorten their lifespan. Leucistic porpoises may suffer from sunburn  and / or skin cancer due to lack of pigmentation in the skin; also from lack of heat retention properties in colder water due to their light colour; and of course are obviously easier targets for killer whales, seals and even roving gangs of male juvenile (delinquent) bottlenose dolphins who are known to harry even normal Harbour porpoises continuously for days and often to death.

We will add a postscript to this article if we can find any proof that the photo id of the animal(s) recorded in recent sightings above are of the same animal.

What are the Differences between Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises?

First the similarities. They are all members of the Class: Mammalia giving birth to live young whom they suckle and although living in the ocean continuously they need to come to the surface to breath. They are all members of the Order: Cetacea and in the case of dolphins, porpoises and whales ( other than baleen whales) they are all members of the Sub-Order: Odontoceti (toothed whales)

There are about 32 species of dolphins worldwide and only about 6 species of porpoises. Their main differences are;

Dolphins have cone shaped teeth while porpoises have spade shaped teeth with sharp edges.
Dolphins have a distinct curved dorsal fin whereas porpoises have a triangular shaped fin.
Porpoises are generally plumper (piggy) than the sleeker (torpedo) shaped dolphins.
Dolphins are generally bigger in size  than porpoises and often play aggressively with them and often harry them to death.
[Bottlenose] dolphins have the original smiley mojo with upturned lips in a permanent smile whereas porpoises have inward turning lips.
Dolphins normally have a beak and a prominent melon ( forehead) whereas porpoises have blunt almost piggy features and almost no neck.
Dolphins are more sociable than porpoises who live in small family groups (shoals) and not large super pods like dolphins.
Porpoises live for about 20 yrs. and (bottlenose) dolphins live for about 40 to 50 years depending on health profile and lifestyle
Dolphins have an EQ [Encephalization Quotient] of approx.4.2; porpoises approx. 3.15 making both smarter than chimpanzees!
Dolphins appear happy!  :)      Porpoises appear sad? :( 

The crew and team at Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours love and respect harbour porpoises every bit as much as some of the mega fauna that we regularly encounter including Humpback whales; Common dolphins; Risso's dolphins and Bottlenose dolphins and on every trip we are especially keeping an eye out for our new and very rare visitor ............................"Micilín Bán".


Just to add to the list of rarities for 2019 a snowy owl was spotted twice on land and photographed by visitors we landed on Great Blasket island as part of our All Day Tour, once up by the Cró, the highest peak on the island and on another occasion flushed from a roost up by the old Martello watchtower. The third occasion was at sea on the north side of the island by a fisherman who spotted "a big white bird and it wasn't any seagull!" Presumably it was another sighting of the snowy owl who has come straight from Harry Potter to visit the magical wonderland that is Dingle Bay and the Blasket Islands archipelago.

Log of whale watching tour boat M.V. "Blasket Princess"      Captain Whales Galore     18.07.2019

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