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You won't know if you don't go
The greatest salve for waking up after a 120 mile boat ride is the prospect of discovery, and perhaps of seeing Migaloo, the world’s only all white whale (http://www.migaloowhale.org). We are up at the crack of dawn, making lunches and heading down to fuel the boat.
We are hoping for calm weather so we can make a run south towards Cairns, an area where Migaloo and other humpbacks were sighted late-yesterday afternoon. Our wishes are granted, the seas are calm and the wind is down. We turn our vessel south towards Green Island, some 35 miles away. About half way through our survey south, the winds shift SW and add some bounce to the trip.
After a 1.5-hour journey we arrive in the spot where Migaloo was sighted yesterday, and begin our survey for whales in the area. We cruise southwest towards Cape Grafton, and then turn south towards dazzling Fitzroy Island National Park. (http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks/fitzroy-island/index.html)
Suddenly a sub-adult appears heading east. We break from this whale, head south and without warning are surrounded by a large pod of friendly bottlenose dolphins. There are a number of inquisitive mothers and calves in the pod. They are not alone, however. A turquoise blue shadow emerges from the deep and two sub-adult whales appear next to us blowing and rolling. The whales are on their way south, surfacing every five minutes and swimming without hesitation.
‘Reef Magic’ (a whalewatch vessel based in Cairns) joins us. They encountered Migaloo twice yesterday, and have put a spotter plane up in the air to assist in spotting whales today. Thirty minutes later, our radio crackles, the pilot says he is done with his surveys and is heading back. A few minutes pass, and the pilot radios he has spotted one last pod en route to the airport and relays the GPS coordinates. Twenty seconds later he excitedly exclaims, “Near that mark we have just spotted Migaloo! I cannot, repeat, cannot circle because I am in controlled airspace. Head that direction and you will find him.”
We plug in the coordinates and discover we are 9 miles east of the mark. We head to the area and find the first pod spotted by the plane, two adults headed east. We find another whale, a lone sub-adult breaching in the distance, who then goes very quite. We search the area for more whales; stop for lunch and decide today will not be a day we find Migaloo.
We head NE past Green Island towards Lugger’s Pass where a mother and newborn calf are surface laying inside the entrance passage in very shallow water (<10 feet). We are 39 miles from port so we survey north past Upolu Cay, Pixie Reef, Satellite Reef, Batt Reef and then west towards Low islands.
It is a melancholy ride, wondering if Migaloo was really in the area or perhaps the pilot’s imagination got the best of him. One thing is certain about whale research, you won’t know if you don’t go out. The season is young and there will be plenty of amazing encounters left, including the chance to see Migaloo again.
It is amazing to think that of all the humpback whales in all the oceans of the world, there is only one all-white humpback, and he happens to live in our study area. Or better said, we are lucky to have chosen to conduct our studies in his home. Either way, our ‘Casablanca moment’ will manifest itself again, if not this year, then some years to come.
As I turn our vessel to port, I remember showing my daughter Kulia (then age four) photos of Migaloo after our encounter off Port Douglas on August 13th last year. She looked at the image of Migaloo (taken from the air by the CairnsPost, below); she looked at me, and then again at the photo. “That’s not an all-white whale Dad. That’s a white whale with a blue tail,” she retorted smugly.
So it is, so it is.
We have no blue tales to tell today. 130 miles later and it's time to scrub the boat, download the data, make dinner and get ready for another glorious day of research tomorrow.
P.S. In Queensland waters Migloo is deemed a “Special Interest whale” and all approaches to him are limited to 500 meters