Houston native Thurman Gustin and his girlfriend were out fishing in a Louisiana channel last week, when they spotted something surprising in the water: two bright pink dolphins.
“We were both freaking out,” Gustin tells Madeline List of McClatchy News. “We were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so pretty’… I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a pink dolphin.”
He stopped the boat, pulled out his phone and immediately started filming, though he was only able to capture the larger of the two dolphins on video.
“I have never seen anything like it and just wanted to save the memories,” he tells Fox 35 Orlando’s Dani Medina.
While Amazon river dolphins, which are native to South America, are naturally pink in color, these two marine mammals were likely bottlenose dolphins with albinism. Albinism is a condition caused by mutations in genes that affect melanin production. A lack of melanin—the pigment that affects the color of eyes, skin and fur—often causes animals to appear white. In albino dolphins, however, blood vessels can be visible through their colorless skin, making them appear pink. The trait can occur across the animal kingdom, though albino animals often face obstacles to surviving in the wild, including poor eyesight. It’s also present in humans—in the United States, about one in every 18,000 to 20,000 people has the condition.
Locals speculate the recently filmed dolphin may have been “Pinky,” a bubblegum-colored cetacean that has been swimming in waters near the Gulf of Mexico for about 16 years. Without genetic testing, it can’t be proven that Pinky has albinism, Dagmar Fertl, a marine mammal biologist, told KHOU in 2017. But her reddish eyes are “the hallmark” of the trait, Greg Barsh, who studies the genetics of color variation, told Nicole Mortillaro of Global News in 2015.
This time, the pink dolphins were spotted in Louisiana’s Cameron Parish, which borders the Gulf of Mexico. Pinky is a “well-known resident of that area and is often seen in those waters,” the Audubon Coastal Wildlife Network, a marine mammal rehabilitation nonprofit, says in an email to USA TODAY’s Saman Shafiq.
The second dolphin may have been Pinky’s offspring. In 2016, Pinky was seen mating with several male dolphins. At the time, it was unclear whether her progeny would also be pink, because her mate would need to carry the gene for albinism to make that possible. Even then, the dolphin would have only a 50 percent chance of producing a pink calf.
But in 2017, a woman claimed to have seen two pink dolphins playing together in the Calcasieu Ship Channel, though she wasn’t able to capture them on video. Then in 2018, two bright pink dolphins were filmed swimming alongside a ship in the channel. Viewers of the Louisiana television station KATC voted to name the second dolphin in a Facebook poll at the time, with the majority saying it should be called “Brain”—a nod to the cartoon “Pinky and the Brain.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only two other dolphins with albinism have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico—one in 1994 and another in 2003. Both were completely white in color.
“I go fishing all the time,” Gustin tells USA TODAY. “This was my third trip to Louisiana this year. I got very lucky, because such [a] spotting is extremely rare. People who have lived their whole lives there haven’t seen anything like this.”