Pink Dolphin

Pink Dolphin

A pink bottlenose dolphin in Louisiana lake becomes a fast celebrity, but it could be to the animal's detriment.

Michele Berger
Published: 03/06/2009

Hype over the appearance of a pink bottlenose dolphin swimming with its ash-colored family in a Louisiana lake triggered the skeptic in me to seek out more information about whether this marine mammal can actually be albino.

In case you missed the story (which broke in the UK Telegraph and includes a fantastic image of the animal), a charter boat captain said that a bubblegum-colored bottlenose dolphin he has see more than four dozen times in Lake Calcasieu, a marshland basin east of the Texas-Louisiana border, resurfaced last Monday.

I couldn’t travel to the bayou to confirm the story myself, so I still have reservations about the existence of a pink bottlenose there. What I do know is that dolphins in general can be pink. In fact, the majority of botos, a species of dolphin found in the Amazon, are a rosy hue.

But albinism, a genetic trait that causes a lack of pigmentation in the dolphin’s epidermal layer, is much less common. Though scientists have documented the pale-skinned condition in 20 different cetacean species, data about its frequency are much harder to come by. Scientists do know that it’s the same genetic condition that afflicts 1 in every 17,000 humans.

For people, it typically means fair skin and light or red eyes. An albino cetacean is often completely white with pink eyes, says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, senior biologist at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).

One of the best-known of these animals is Migaloo, an all-white humpback whale that first appeared near Australia in 1991. And of course, who can forget the great white Moby Dick made famous by Melville?

Pure curiosity could launch Louisiana’s pink bottlenose to celeb status fast—and that could mean trouble for the animal, according to Mark Simmonds, WDCS’ science director. “The fact that it’s now well-known and that it’s getting publicity,” he says, “there’s always concern that all the people who want to go see it may cause a problem.”

Simmonds mentions increased underwater noise from more boats, which may force the pink dolphin and its family out of their choice habitat. Asmutis-Silvia says that extra attention may cause the dolphin to stop eating properly, which could negatively affect its breeding.

Both suggest viewing the new celebrity cetacean in photos that already exist rather than trying to see in it person. “We’re a bit like those Victorians that used to hunt down albinos and other rare species,” Simmonds says, “except we do it with cameras.”