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The albino humpback whale: Migaloo

by Holly Chavez Blog

Whales of all types are fascinating, but every once in a while, a unique example of these marine mammals captures the attention of people worldwide.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Highlights: Whale safari, Humpback Whale

The albino humpback whale: Migaloo

All of the species of whale you can see on your Antarctica vacation are fascinating, but every once in a while, a unique example of these marine mammals captures the attention of people worldwide. In 1991, an albino humpback whale that was quickly dubbed Migaloo was spotted in Byron Bay, which is off the coast of Australia. This discovery shocked and amazed whale researchers and enthusiasts because Migaloo was the only known albino humpback whale in existence. This was of course reminiscent of the book “Moby Dick,” and the Australian government quickly sprang into action in order to ensure that Migaloo would be protected by legislative measures.

Until 2011, Migaloo was the only albino Humpback whale spotted anywhere in the world. Therefore, the appearance of a young whale that is 100 percent white renewed the excitement that had initially been caused by Migaloo. Although it is impossible to know for certain whether or not Migaloo is related to the young white whale in question, it has been nicknamed Migaloo Jr and MJ.

Photo credits: © Department of Conservation - doc.govt.nz

The average humpback whale lives to the age of 50, so it is not surprising that Migaloo is still going strong 24 years after he was first spotted. In addition to Migaloo and MJ, there is at least one other white humpback whale that is known to spend part of its life near Australia. However, this particular whale has a black spot, so it is not a true albino.

Recent Sighting of the white humpback

The three white humpback whales travel between Australia and the northern portion of the Antarctic Ocean. In other words, it is possible that they could be spotted in a wide variety of places. When you consider how much water makes up this massive area, though, it becomes easy to understand why these whales are seen so infrequently.

Photo credits: © Department of Conservation - doc.govt.nz

On August 9, 2015, a video was taken that showcases a white whale swimming off of Australia’s Gold Coast. Initial observers questioned whether or not the whale in the video is Migaloo, but experts do not believe that this is the case. Instead, they have pointed out that the whale appears to be much smaller than Migaloo, and it has been estimated that the marine mammal is five-years-old. This could mean that MJ was captured on film, but there is no way to verify this possibility.

Migaloo’s Story

The first sighting of Migaloo occurred on June 28, 1991. A photographer managed to capture Migaloo on film, and this quickly turned the albino into the most popular and beloved humpback whale in the entire Australia region. Since that initial photograph, Migaloo has been spotted several times in the water near Australia and in the Antarctic Ocean.

Researchers believe that Migaloo was born in 1986, which means that he was only five when the famous photograph was taken. This is especially interesting due to the previously mentioned fact that the newest white whale sighting features a marine mammal that is believed to be that same age.

As of 2004, researchers have had a sample of Migaloo’s DNA. This enabled them to make a definitive determination regarding his gender, and it also made it possible to more accurately estimate his age. At this point, Migaloo is believed to be 29. With continual conservation efforts, he is expected to live for at least 20 more years.

Migaloo spends most of his life in the frigid Antarctic waters, but he travels to tropical water on an annual basis for breeding purposes. Although no definitive matches have been made yet, researchers continue to compare any DNA samples they collect from other whales to Migaloo’s in the hopes of identifying his offspring.

In 2012 another almost completely white Humpback whale was spotted on two occasions by expedition cruise ships in Svalbard waters. However, images confirm that it is not a true albino, as it has some pigmentation on the lower side of the fluke, a few dark spots around the eye as well as normal coloration of the eye. It is leucistic which is a well-known condition with a reduced production of melanin that is responsible for pigmentation in animals.

The rarity of Migaloo and the two other known white whales makes it impossible for any whale watching safari to guarantee a sighting of one of these magnificent creatures. This knowledge may even cause some people to miss out on an opportunity to see them because they are not paying close enough attention. To help avoid this problem, it is recommended to remain alert when humpback whales are near. After all, it is always possible that you could be on the water when a Migaloo whale swims nearby. 

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