Excited whale-watchers along Australia's east coast were out in full force today to welcome the return of a cetacean celebrity.
The famous albino humpback "Migaloo" – whose name means "white fella" – travels up the coast here each year. First spotted off the resort town of Byron Bay in 1991, he was thought to be the world's only documented albino humpback at the time, but he's since acquired some company: two calves (one named MJ, short for Migaloo Jr), as well as another whale that frequents the waters off Norway's coast.
Now around 25 years old and protected under Australian law, the pale leviathan has become something of an ambassador for his species, and his distinctive colouring allows locals to report sightings right along the Australian coast. There's even a Twitter account dedicated to tracking his migratory movements.
According to Oskar Peterson, founder of the White Whale Research Centre, Migaloo makes an annual 8,000-kilometre (5,000 mile) round trip from his Antarctic feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean to Queensland's tropical waters.
This year's first sighting came on the morning of July 22, when the white whale, accompanied by a smaller female, was seen heading north. Since then, he's been cruising at a steady pace towards the Gold Coast from Byron Bay.
But not everyone is convinced about the visitor's identity. Trevor Long, director of marine sciences at Sea World, has his doubts. "While I say it's somewhat objective, I do not believe it's Migaloo," he told Brisbane Times. "It's a smaller animal and doesn't have the same degree of damage and yellowing [as Migaloo]."
Peterson disagrees. "I can guarantee it's Migaloo," he told local reporters. "I've seen him from Byron ... all the way up (to the Gold Coast)." A similar guessing game unfolded when a white whale made an appearance off the country’s eastern coast in August last year.
Whether it really is Migaloo or another pale whale, boats are being urged to keep a safe distance away from the animal to give it plenty of room to cruise along without disruption.
If you'd like to help the White Whale Research Centre with its Migaloo-tracking work, head on over to their website.
Top header image: Michael Dawes, Flickr