Picture: Queensland Environmental Protection Agency 

In our second blog on whales who’ve captured the attention of the world and the hearts of people, we take a closer look at the humpback whale Migaloo. Famed because of his all-white appearance (he’s a rare albino humpback), he first entered public consciousness back in 1991. 

First spotting 

A group of volunteers were carrying out a whale count off Byron Bay on Australia’s East Coast in 1991. Imagine their surprise when a white humpback whale was first spotted through a telescope from a distance of more than 5km away. A photo was taken through the telescope and though it turned out to be quite blurry, it was a historic photo capturing a unique moment!  

Two years later, Pacific Whale Foundation researchers encountered Migaloo in Hervey Bay, Queensland, and were able to confirm that he was indeed all-white. The Foundation was able to record him singing (a trait that’s distinct to male humpbacks) in 1998.

In 2004, genetic testing of sloughed skin cells by Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre confirmed that Migaloo was, indeed, a male whale.  

He is clearly identifiable from his white appearance but he has some other distinctive physical traits – his dorsal fin is slightly hooked and his tail flukes have a particular shape, with spiked edges running alongside the lower trailing side. He is 15 metres in length.  

How did he get his name? 

From the beginning, the Australian public and the wider world were intrigued by this unusual whale. He needed a name and it was decided that the naming should be done by the elders of the local Aboriginal collective in Hervey Bay.  

They named him ‘Migaloo’ or ‘white fella’. In Aboriginal culture, the white or albino colour of animals demonstrates the need to respect all forms of life even if they appear different than ‘normal’. And that they should be honoured with reverence and respect, not discrimination and shame.

What’s Migaloo’s life like? 

The whale – who is now estimated to be 33-36 years old – is part of a humpback whale group that feed in Antarctica during the southern hemisphere’s summer and autumn (November – May).  

In the corresponding summer and spring (June – October), they migrate up along the east coast of Australia and then breed in the warm waters near the Great Barrier Reef.

Every couple of years, there are sightings of Migaloo as he transits off the Australian coast and he’s also been spotted in New Zealand waters. He has been sighted many times with a pal, a male humpback whale known as Milo.  

Australian legislation givens protection to all humpback whales but Migaloo and other humpbacks that are more than 90% white are “special management marine mammals” which gives them extra protection. Boats can’t approach within 500 metres of them and access in the skies above is also restricted. There’s significant fines if these rules are breached.  

These measures are to make sure Migaloo is not harassed or can injure himself in a boat collision, such is the human interest in seeing him.   

Before the restrictions were brought in, the whale had collided with a trimaran off northern Queensland. It caused some damage to the boat’s keel and its rudder, which people feared might have lodged in the whale’s back.  

Fortunately, Migaloo was seen swimming freely in waters just north of where the collision happened. A subsequent examination revealed he had only suffered a slight wound on his back, right of his dorsal fin.  

Research on Migaloo 

The Pacific Whale Foundation has been able to gather a lot of data about Migaloo sightings over the years (without the use of radio tags, as he is so easily identifiable). This has helped their research work on humpback migratory patterns in the South Pacific.

The Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre, based in Australia, has also collected important research data about Migaloo over the years (particularly through the work of Wally and Trish Franklin). 

Is Migaloo the only albino humpback in the world? 

For a few years, it was thought that Migaloo was the only whale of his type in the world. But there have since been sightings of white humpback whales considerable distances apart, which supports the idea of him not being unique (although some argue he is unique in the Eastern Australian seaboard).

Three other white humpbacks have been documented in the world (Bahloo, Willow and Migaloo Jr), making them extremely rare.

Migaloo Jr (also known as Chalkie) was a calf when spotted in the Whitsunday Islands in Australia in 2011. He was given his name because of a similarity to Migaloo but isn’t confirmed to be his offspring (only genetic tests can prove this).

The future for Migaloo 

On average, humpback whales live 45 to 50 years, though they can live up to 80 or 90 years old.  

In July 2022, fears were raised about Migaloo when a dead white humpback whale washed up on a beach in Victoria, Australia. Environment officials were able to test samples from the dead whale and compare to samples they have on file from Migaloo, and were able to determine that the whale was not Migaloo. It was found to be a sub-adult female whale.  

Biologists are concerned that Migaloo may develop skin cancer from the sun’s UV rays, something he is more vulnerable to because of his lack of pigmentation. Red marks have been spotted on his dorsal fin in the past, and are being monitored whenever he is spotted.

Migaloo was last seen in June 2020 but it’s quite common for there to be two to three year gaps between sightings, so only time will tell when he next makes an appearance.

He’s certainly a whale that’s beloved by millions of people, as demonstrated by the many social media accounts dedicated to him. And the fact that he has his own website, where people log their Migaloo sightings.

Check out previous blog Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Tokitae (Lolita)