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Considered to be the most famous humpback whale in the world, Migaloo may be the only pure white adult humpback whale alive today. This remarkable whale was first observed and photographed in June of 1991, from a shore-based observation platform in Byron Bay in New South Wales along the eastern coast of Australia. More than 50 confirmed sightings of Migaloo have occurred since then.
There are a number of ways in which scientists identify Migaloo. The obvious characteristic is that he is all white. His dorsal fin (on his back) is slightly hooked. His tail flukes have a distinctive shape, with spiked edges along the lower trailing side.
Pacific Whale Foundation researcher Paul Forestell, who began monitoring Migaloo soon after the whale was first spotted in 1991, helped to coin the name based on advice from an Aboriginal elder. The name "Migaloo" is a slang-like term for "white fella."
In 1991, the year Migaloo was first sighted, it was too large to be a juvenile although it did not appear to be fully grown, which led researchers to believe he was about 3 to 5 years old at that time. In 2000, the researchers believed Migaloo was at least 11 years old, possibly as old as 12 to 15 years of age. In 2009, Migaloo was thought to be up to 21 to 34 years old.
A number of clues helped scientists determine Migaloo’s gender. For example, the white whale was observed in 1993 escorting a mother/calf pod, which is a fairly reliable indicator the animal is male. Pacific Whale Foundation recorded Migaloo singing in 1996, which led them to believe that he is a male. Generally, only males sing in areas where whales mate and calve. On those occasions when observers noted the pod of which Migaloo was part, the all-white whale was in a pod of two whales 40% of the time and with large surface active groups of whales 17% of the time. Adult male humpbacks are often observed with such pods in the winter breeding grounds. The most conclusive evidence resulted when Southern Cross University who gathered and analyzed sloughed skin samples from Migaloo in October of 2004. Their DNA test results confirmed that Migaloo is, without a doubt, a male.
Pacific Whale Foundation worked with other researchers at the Southern Cross Centre for Whale Research and Australian Whale Conservation Society to write a scientific paper about Migaloo in 2001.
To prepare their paper, the scientists had investigated more than 50 reports of sightings of a white whale off Australia's east coast since 1991. During 1992, Migaloo was observed and extensively photographed in Hervey Bay in Queensland. Local news coverage of the white whale subsequently increased public awareness of Migaloo, and sightings were reported in every year from 1991 to 2000 except 1997.
After an absence of sightings for three years, Migaloo was sighted on July 10, 2003, off Tweed Heads, on the border between New South Wales and Queensland. On August 16, 2003, 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, 2003, seven miles off Palm Island in Queensland. The whale appeared to be swimming normally. Migaloo has since been in July August of 2007, off the eastern coast of Australia. A fishing boat saw him breach five times off northeast of Townsville. On August 5, 2007, a dive boat spotted Migaloo about 9 nautical miles offshore, near Port Douglas.
A team of Pacific Whale Foundation researchers studying humpback whales near the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia located and observed the all-white whale on two occasions on Thursday, August 13, 2009. Migaloo was first found about one nautical mile northwest of Snapper Island; the researchers located him with the guidance of the dive/snorkel vessel “Aristocrat” but then lost sight of the whale after it surfaced twice. About four hours later, they found him again about 4.5 nautical miles west of Snapper Island swimming towards Tongue Reef, an area where the researchers have been recording whale singers during the past two days.
"He was swimming closely along a current change line," says Kaufman. "He did two fluke up dives as we observed him, which allowed us to get two very good identification photos of his flukes."
Migaloo, was sighted on September 26, 2009 in the Whitsunday Islands between Hardy Reef and Shute Harour. He was seen on September 28, 2009 in Byron Bay.
The latest reported sighting of Migaloo was on Tuesday, October 3, 2011. Migaloo was sighted about 480 miles north of Sydney, Australia, in Byron Bay. The all-white whale was heading toward the south along the East Australian coast when it was sighted by guests and crew on a whalewatch tour with "Whale Watching Byron Bay." According to the company, the trip had just about ended when the captain decided to let everyone have a look at a whale pod approaching from the north. It turned out to be Migaloo traveling with one other whale.
Migaloo is a part of a population of humpback whales that feed in Antarctica during the months of November – May, which are summer and fall in the Southern Hemisphere. These whales migrate along the east coast of Australia, to breed in the warm tropical waters near the Great Barrier Reef during the months of June – October, which is considered winter and spring in that part of the world.
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.
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.