Migaloo, the White Humpback Whale

migaloo
© 1992 Pacific Whale Foundation
Experts on Rare All-White Humpback Whale Ask World to “Give Him Space”
Researchers who have studied the world’s first scientifically documented all-white humpback whale for nearly a decade are asking the Australian government and the public to leave him alone.

The whale is a part of a population of humpback whales than feed in Antartica during the Austral summer/fall months (November – May) . They migrate along the east coast of Australia, to breed in the warm tropical waters near the Great Barrier reef in the Austral winter/spring (June – October).

“We are concerned about the well-being of this unusual and beautiful whale,” says Greg Kaufman, President and founder of Pacific Whale Foundation. “This year, the attention to the whale has reached astounding proportions, and the whale is becoming victimized by his star status.”
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This close-up photo from September 1992 shows Migalo’s head around the blowhole area,where a number of cysts can clearly be seen. Pacific Whale Foundation researchers are concerned that these may be cancerous or precancerous, as the all-white whale’s lack of pigmentation makes it especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of the sun. Note that these are not the normal bumps, called sensory nodules, that are found over the forward part and lower jaw of a humpback whale. There is also uncharacteristic swelling just behind the blowhole.

Photo credit: Dr. Paul Forestell, Pacific Whale Foundation.

Kaufman and Dr. Paul Forestell, Vice President of Pacific Whale Foundation, have worked to scientifically document this rare all-white whale’s existence since 1991. They were the ones who named him “Migaloo” – which means “white fellow” – after consulting with some Aboriginal friends in Australia.

The Pacific Whale Foundation team also worked in partnership with scientists from Southern Cross Centre for Whale Research and the Australian Whale Conservation Society to author a scientific paper about the whale. Titled “Observations of a Hypo-Pigmented Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Off East Coast Australia 1991-2000,” the paper documents some 35 confirmed sightings of the whale. It was published in Memoirs of the Queensland Museum (Volume 47 Part 2, December 2000).

The all-white whale, who has been sighted repeatedly off the Queensland coast since 1991, reappeared this summer after a three year sighting lull. Its sighting sparked an avalanche of media attention and boatloads of curious sightseers hoping to gain a glimpse of the unusual animal. An underwater photographer reportedly approached the whale at close range in July. Last weekend, the whale was hit by a boat off the coast of Queensland – and possibly injured.

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers are relieved that the Queensland government has designated Migaloo a “special interest whale.” No person can drive a boat or jet ski any closer than 500 meters. Approach to humpback whales without the special interest status is limited to 100 meters.

However, Pacific Whale Foundation is concerned that Queensland Parks and Wildlife is considering plans to radio tag the whale – which means either shooting it with a cross bow, or a close approach by a vessel and using a long pole to attach the tag to the skin. Providing the tagging is successful, it would allow the whale’s path to be followed until the tag fails.

Pacific Whale Foundation’s researchers are concerned that this may place even more stress on the whale, with greater reporting of the whale’s whereabouts and larger crowds of whalewatchers pursuing a chance to see him.

“While the intentions may be good, it seems that it’s time to leave Migaloo alone, and let him be a humpback whale,” says Kaufman. “The singing that he’s been engaging in this summer proves he is attempting to engage in the rituals of mating and breeding.”

“Undeniably Migaloo is a special whale, but we cannot do him any good by getting too close, and putting him under the microscope,” says Forestell. “He is an animal with a highly developed brain, and natural needs to move through his habitat, unimpeded, to find food, avoid predation, mate, and engage in complex social behaviors.”

“As a male, he must establish his fitness and competitive capability to win access to ovulating females,” Forestell continues. “He can’t do that if he’s being pursued by boats and planes.”

Forestell and Kaufman believe Migaloo is between 14 and 18 years old. In 1991, the year he was first sighted, he was too large to be a juvenile although he did not appear to be fully grown, suggesting that the whale was already between 3 and 5 years of age.

The researchers believe Migaloo is a male, because its behaviors have included singing and escorting a mother and calf, which are all characteristic of male humpback whales.

They stop short of calling the whale an albino – although they suspect it is.

“By analyzing photos of the whale, we’ve seen that the whale’s skin appears to be uniformly and completely white over its entire body,” says Kaufman. “Unfortunately, we have not been able to view its eye, in any photos. If the whale is an albino, his eyes would be pink.”

According to Kaufman, there are faint traces of pink in the region surrounding the eye in a photo of the whale breaching in 1993. There is an unusual amount of pink showing around the blowholes in an aerial photograph of the whale in 1992. Pacific Whale Foundation’s researchers are concerned that the whale may have skin cancer – another reason for the public to back off, and leave the whale alone.

“This whale is special,” says Kaufman. “But the fact is that all humpback whales are considered endangered or threatened, depending on the part of the world you’re in. They are all special and deserving of the best protection that humanity can offer.”

On August 16, Migaloo was involved in a collision with a trimaran near the Australian town of Townsville. According to news reports, the operator of the vessel said that Migaloo surfaced just in front of his boat, lifting it and breaking off its center keel. The whale may have been injured.

Additional reports indicate the whale was sighted again on August 19, seven miles off Palm Island in Queensland. The whale appeared to be swimming normally.

Migaloo is a part of a population of humpback whales than feed in Antartica during the Austral summer/fall months (November – May). They migrate along the east coast of Australia, to breed in the warm tropical waters near the Great Barrier reef in the Austral winter/spring (June – October). Migaloo is part of the Southern Ocean Group V stock of humpback whales.

After observing the white whale in 1992, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Dr. Paul Forestell contacted a couple of local Aboriginal people — one a tradesman and the other a teacher — asking them whether an albino whale might have any significance in their culture, and whether they could suggest a name. The tradesman spoke with an aunt of his, a revered aboriginal elder, and she suggested the name ‘Migaloo’ – which means “white fellah.”

“The teacher told me that she believed albinos (whether humans, kangaroos, or crocodiles) were considered by Aboriginals to be special beings, perhaps signs or tokens from the spirit world,” recalls Dr. Forestell.

While the classic “Moby Dick” focused on a fictional all-white whale, Migaloo is the only known occurrence of an all-white humpback whale in the 20th century. This is based on records kept by whalers of the tens of thousands of humpback whales killed during the first half of the 20th century, and the observations by whale researchers during the second half of the century. Steven Spielberg is currently producing a movie about an all-white whale.

Because the whale is so visible and easily identified, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers have been able to gather a lot of data about its sightings – without the use of radio tags. This has helped researchers better understand the migratory pathways of humpback whales in the South Pacific. For example, in 1992, there were nine reliable sightings of Migaloo, which made it possible for Pacific Whale Foundation to plot the whale’s migratory movement along the east Australia coast during the northward migration to the breeding areas, as well as its southward migration at the end of the season to its feeding area.

Pacific Whale Foundation has studied humpback whales in Australia for 19 years. During that time, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers have photo-identified more than 2,400 individual humpback whales along the east coast of Australia and in Polynesia. The study has also led to the publication of several peer-reviewed publications and reports, and a book published in 1993 by Queensland Parks and Wildlife and authored by Pacific Whale Foundation researchers. The book, Humpback Whales of Australia, catalogs the identification photos and resight histories of 1,183 whales.

Data from Pacific Whale Foundation’s ongoing research was utilized by the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to help create the Hervey Bay Marine Park (sanctuary). Pacific Whale Foundation also helped formulate national approach guidelines for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in Australia, and a five year 1997-2001 Cetacean Management Plan for ocean areas under the jurisdiction of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

With headquarters in Maui and satellite offices in Brisbane, Australia and Quito, Ecuador, Pacific Whale Foundation (www.pacificwhale.org) is a nonprofit IRS tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) organization dedicated to saving whales, dolphins and reefs through marine research, public education and conservation. Pacific Whale Foundation’s work is funded by profits from Pacific Whale Foundation’s Eco-Adventure cruises in Maui, as well as from sales of merchandise and the support of members around the world.