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Did Moby-Dick Have Skin Cancer?

"Call the risk pale."
Image: Achah/Deviant Art

I've been searching for a metaphor for “white whales” long enough for the whole thing to go meta, so let's just cut to the chase and say that they're rare. So rare that “Migaloo” is described as the only documented all-white humpback whale in the world (. He's 28, lives off the coast of Australia, and, unfortunately, he may or may not have skin cancer.

According the Australian Associated Press, as Migaloo was spotted off of Sydney, his dorsal fin was spotted with red marks.


Red marks near #Migaloo1 dorsal fin are interesting. It might be rub marks or it could be early signs of skin cancer.

— Migaloo the Whale (@Migaloo1) June 25, 2014

"It may well be just a growth, or it could be skin cancer, we're just not too sure at the moment," said White Whale Research Centre founder Oskcar Peterson.

The photos were turned over to Peter Harrison, a whale expert and professor at Southern Cross University who said that it was probably something to keep an eye on next time Migaloo is photographed. "It will be very interesting to see whether or not this redness has disappeared, or whether or not it has obviously become more inflamed which would indicate some sort of infection and I guess there is a possibility that it might be early stages of cancer as well," he said. "It looks like a little tissue bruising, there's some other discolouration nearby…at this stage of course we simply can't tell.”

We just don't know about Migaloo. He's swimming strong and is still “a young fellow” as Peterson puts it, so maybe there's nothing to worry about. But the whole thing got me wondering about how frequently skin cancer appears in white whales. After all, a lack of pigmentation puts pale people at risk. And this was the first time I'd heard of a whale getting skin cancer—but if any whale would get it, wouldn't a white whale be the likeliest? Like, maybe Moby-Dick was really just a white whale with a Walter White-esque problem, and that's why he kept eating people's limbs.

Image: NOAA

While white humpbacks have a known population of one, mature beluga whales are white normally. So I called up Dr. Bill Van Bonn, the vice president of animal health at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He oversees the health and welfare of 32,000 animals at the Shedd, including belugas, and I figured he'd know if they ever get skin cancer.

“The short answer is no,” Van Bonn told me. “To my knowledge, skin cancers in all whales, including belugas, is very, very, very uncommon.”

That's deliberately three verys there. While he allowed that there might be cases of white whales, beluga or otherwise, getting skin cancer, it would have to be pretty deep in the scientific literature, and “a real oddity,” he said.

But it is something that other white animals, like white horses, are at risk for. “Terrestrial animals with albinism are at more risk for issues related to UV exposure,” Van Bonn said. “They're more photosensitive, more likely to get sunburned. I'm not sure if anyone's looked at the incidence rate of neoplasia, or cancer in albinism, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see it out there. But that's a different environment, different exposure profile.”

Whales, of course, aren't getting a ton of UV exposure, even if they're getting more sun than, say, squids. In spite of sharing ancestors with horses, whales lead a different life, wrapped in different skin. “They also have a much higher metabolic rate with their skin too. All of the layers are much thicker, of course—they use their skin for insulation and buoyancy and energy reserves. They've got really really modified skin compared to terrestrial animals.”

Van Bonn told me that the Shedd is working with Canadian researchers to monitor a population of belugas living in the St. Lawrence seaway, which does seem to have higher incidence of cancer than many wild animal populations. The presumption, though, is that their cancer rate has more to do with human contaminants in the river, not because belugas don't have access to SPF-40. It isn't skin cancer, at any rate.

As for Migaloo, Van Bonn also seemed skeptical about what would happen next. “A lot of times, trying to make a diagnosis from looking at the skin of these animals is very difficult,” he said. “In order to get any kind of diagnosis you need to get a sample of the skin somehow. That's pretty tricky to do with a free-ranging animal that's out roaming around. Photographs lead to a lot of speculation. The ideal thing would be a biopsy.”

There you go, sea-faring dermatologists: a mission worthy of Melville.