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Rare all-white humpback whale sighted near Great Barrier Reef

Pacific Whale Foundation Research Team Locates

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Pacific Whale Foundation Research Team Locates

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 known as Migaloo on Thursday, August 13.

The white whale, considered to be the most famous humpback whale in the world, was observed on two separate occasions today by Pacific Whale Foundation researchers Greg Kaufman and Annie Macie.

“We were hyper aware that Migaloo might be in the area because of a call we had received three days earlier about a possible sighting off Mission Beach, about 210 kilometers south of Port Douglas,” said Kaufman. “Since whales travel at an average of 3 knots, we calculated that it would take him 2-3 days to reach the Port Douglas area.”

The two researchers first found Migaloo about one nautical mile northwest of Snapper Island with the guidance of the dive/snorkel vessel “Aristocrat” but then lost sight of the whale after it surfaced twice. They found him again about 4.5 nautical miles west of Snapper Island about four hours later 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.”

Kaufman noted that the top and bottom sides of the tail flukes are identical, with no pigmentation patterns on them.

“There are four characteristics that let us identify this whale as Migaloo,” noted Kaufman. “First, there is the shape or outline of Migaloo’s tail flukes; it’s very unique with spiked trailing edges.”

“Second, there is the slightly hooked dorsal fin. And then there is the slightly misshapen head,” says Kaufman. “From the beginning, we’ve seen that Migaloo has a lump on the side of its head. His misshapen head could be related to his albinism.”

Last of course, is the fact that Migaloo is all-white. “As far as we know, he’s the only known reported all-white humpback whale on earth,” says Kaufman.

The all-white whale had red and orange diatoms growing on him. “Many whales in this area have this, but it really showed up on Migaloo’s all-white skin,” noted Kaufman.

Migaloo was last officially sighted in the area in on July 27, 2007, off Undine Reef, about 10 miles south of today’s sighting. “I honestly had a dream last night that we would see Migaloo today and had a strong premonition in the morning that today would be the day we would see him again,” said Kaufman.

“Seeing Migaloo was inspirational. The word that kept coming to my mind was majestic,” said Annie Macie, researcher at Pacific Whale Foundation. “It was like seeing the 8th wonder of the world.”

“Just before it surfaced, you could see a halo effect from the white body against the blue sea,” she said. “Then its body would shine as it rose from the ocean.”

“Overall, it was really an amazing experience, the best day of my life,” she noted.

Before the researchers left, a number of dive/snorkel boats in the area arrived to take a closer look.

“Everyone was good about following the 500-meter approach law regarding approaches to this “special whale” said Kaufman. He noted that Migaloo was heading in a direction where he and Macie has heard singing whales earlier
in the week.

Kaufman had seen Migaloo about 16 years ago, while studying humpback whales in Australia.

Pacific Whale Foundation vice president and researcher Paul Forestell was the one who named Migaloo in 1992, after consulting with an Aboriginal Tribe in Hervey Bay. The name “Migaloo” is a slang-like term for “white fella.”

Pacific Whale Foundation recorded Migaloo singing in 1996, which proves that he is a male. DNA testing from Southern Cross University also confirmed that he is a male.

Pacific Whale Foundation maintains a website dedicated to the all-white whale – called migaloowhale.org – and also features Migaloo in its “family” of whales in its Adopt a Whale program.

This unusual whale was also the subject of a scientific paper written by researchers from Pacific Whale Foundation, Southern Cross Centre for Whale Research, and Australian Whale Conservation Society in 2001.

The paper was titled “Observations of a Hypo-Pigmented Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Off East Coast Australia 1991-2000.” It was published in Memoirs of the Queensland Museum (Volume 47 Part 2), the
proceedings of the Humpback Whale Conference 2000 held at the museum.

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.

They reported that a white whale was first observed and photographed in 1991 from a shore-based observation platform in Byron Bay in New South Wales. The following year, the same animal was observed and extensively photographed in Hervey Bay in Queensland. Local news coverage of the white whale subsequently increased public awareness of the animal, and sightings had been reported in every year from 1991 to 2000 except 1997.

In 1991, the year the whale was first sighted, it was too large to be a juvenile although it did not appear to be fully grown, noted coauthor Paul Hodda, president of the Australian Whale Conservation Society. This suggests
the whale was already between 3 and 5 years of age when first observed. In 2000, the researchers believed the whale was at least 11 years old, possibly as old as 12 to 15 years of age. Its behavior over time has indicated it is a male and perhaps a male that has just reached reproductive maturity during the past few years. Migaloo is thought to be up to 21 to 34 years old now and has been identified as a male, by its behaviors.

For example, the white whale was observed in 1993 escorting a mother/calf pod, which is a fairly reliable indicator the animal is male. In 1998, during its visit to Hervey Bay, it was heard singing – an even more reliable indicator that it is male. On those occasions when observers noted the pod size of the whale, the whale was in a pod of two whales 40 percent of the time and with large surface active groups of whales 17 percent of the time. Adult male humpbacks are often observed with such pods in the winter breeding grounds.

Pacific Whale Foundation has field offices in Ecuador and Australia with headquarters in Hawaii. Pacific Whale Foundation is a designated US 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 research, education, and conservation projects are 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

To learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation, visit www.pacificwhale.org or call 1-800-942-5311.

To learn more about Migaloo visit www.migaloowhale.org.

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