A bottlenose dolphin with white blotches on its otherwise dark body and a pink-tipped dorsal fin has become famous among Southern California marine mammal enthusiasts.
This is because the peculiar cetacean, which stands out so glaringly among other, is easy to spot and only shows up a few times each year, making each sighting noteworthy.
But are some people getting just a bit carried away? The dolphin, named "Patches," was spotted this week off Dana Point and featured Thursday in the Orange County Register.
Mark Tyson, a naturalist for Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari, is quoted as saying, "When an animal is unusual, it's sometimes shunned. To keep seeing him year after year, and most recently with a dolphin right next to him, means he's been accepted as a member of the pod." (The first known sighting was in 2005 off Dana Point. Tyson is credited with giving Patches its name.)
David Anderson, who runs the landing, said Patches "seems well-respected" by other dolphins, despite its peculiar coloration.
Could this simply be due to the fact that Patches, who measures an impressive 12 feet, is a bottlenose dolphin, and because dolphins are not subject to prejudice, as humans sometimes are?
Whatever the case, Patches is a cool story, especially now, as marine mammal fans are in a slow period and await the showing of southbound Pacific gray whales, as they head to Baja California's nursing and calving lagoons.
Sightings of Patches have been made from about the California-Mexico border to Palos Verdes, with the first known sighting in 2006.
Anderson said Patches could be a hybrid: part Risso's dolphin, and part bottlenose. Risso's dolphins are large, like bottlenose dolphins, and are identifiable by their blunt heads.
Their bodies are dark gray with extensive white scarring, which sometimes makes them appear white while they swim just beneath the surface. They're often seen with offshore bottlenose dolphins, and share similar feeding habits.
Patches does feature white markings similar to those of a Risso's, but Patches appears to be piebald, or partially albino, with a face resembling that of a bottlenose.
Dr. Thomas Jefferson, a small cetacean expert, looked at the photo accompanying this story and said, "It could be a hybrid, but as you suspect, probably more likely to be just a bottlenose with anomalous coloration. The only way to be sure would be to collect a biopsy sample and do the genetics."
(It's worth noting that bottlenose and Risso's dolphins have interbred in captivity, and that some female offspring have proven to be fertile.)
Meanwhile, eyes remain peeled for more Patches sightings and, of course, for the first wave of migrating gray whales.
--Photo showing Patches earlier this year off San Diego is courtesy of Melissa Panfili Galieti of Pacific Nature Tours