Where is Migaloo? Why haven’t we seen the white whale?

Migaloo – “white fella” in local First Nations language – is an iconic albino humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) famous along the eastern coast of Australia. He was first sighted in Australian waters in 1991, but this year is the second in a row where Migaloo’s absence has disappointed keen whale watchers and marine scientists.

With an enormous ocean in which to hide, the question on everyone’s lips is “where is Migaloo?” followed closely by something along the lines of “will we ever see him again?”.

By compiling and analysing a list of the confirmed historical sightings of Migaloo, a research team led by Dr Vanessa Pirotta, a Marine mammal expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, has demonstrated that the current lack of sightings is not necessarily unusual for Migaloo.

Migaloo surfaces
Migaloo surfaces in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia in 1988. (Pirotta et al. 2022, credit: Dr Trish Franklin)

“Looking at the record of over 30 years of sightings since 1991, there are clear gaps in time where we have not seen Migaloo,” says Pirotta. “This research gives people a little hope that he is yet to be seen next year.”

The table of sightings lists the year, date and location of the observations as well as the source of the sighting and any notes. The sightings are classified as ‘certain’, ‘likely’ or ‘anecdotal’ according to the level of evidence (photographic or video), the expertise of the observer and the timing of the sighting as compared to other similar sightings.

Previous research has demonstrated gaps of up to 11 years between observing individual whales, and so, suggests the report, “the lack of/time between recent sightings [of Migaloo] might not be that unusual.”

“From past photographic and genetic evidence, we know Migaloo has also been seen in New Zealand waters, so it is possible that the lack of sightings are just because he’s not in Australian waters,” says Pirotta.

Read more: Most wanted whale: the chance of seeing white humpback Migaloo gets everyone excited

Migaloo dives showing his tail flukes
Migaloo dives showing his tail flukes. Both the colour and tail shape is unique, enabling identification of Migaloo within a large east coast Australian humpback whale population. (Pirotta et al. 2022, credit: Dr Dan Burns.)

The sightings from areas outside of Australian waters are an important piece of the puzzle for cetacean researchers, as they “provide evidence that east coast humpback whales may share both NZ and Aus waters when migrating,” says Pirotta.

The observations may hint at mixing of different humpback whale populations (e.g., East Australian and Oceania populations) and potentially the return of whales to areas in the Cook Strait that were originally sites of intense whaling.

The article also discusses protections put in place to protect Migaloo and other predominantly (ie: more than 90%) white whales. For example, in Queensland and NSW, vessels and drones have strict distance regulations imposed to ensure the safety of the whales.

It might seem strange to focus on a single white whale when it comes to research on whale populations as a whole, but Migaloo’s differences makes spotting and identifying him much easier.

Migaloo with another whale in new zealand waters
Migaloo sighted in New Zealand waters in 2015 confirmed via photographic and genetic analysis. He was sighted 35 days later off Australia, providing direct evidence of east coast Australian humpback whales using New Zealand waters as a migratory corridor. (Pirotta et al. 2022, credit: Dr Nadine Gibbs.)

His unique appearance and popularity with the public make him the perfect poster boy for citizen science, with this paper highlighting the role the general public had to play in understanding humpback whale migration.

“Social media plays an extremely important role,” says Pirotta. “Through social media, we could determine that the recent white whale washed up in Mallacoota, Australia was not Migaloo and we also know there’s a new white whale calf spotted off the coast of Costa Rica.” For any citizen scientists lucky enough to spot Migaloo, let Pirotta and other scientist know via migaloo.com.au (a dedicated Migaloo website led by The White Whale Research Centre) or via Twitter @Migaloo1. “Photos and video as well as information about the location, behaviour and time of day are all welcomed when reporting sightings”, says Pirotta.

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