When Migaloo the white humpback whale was first spotted in Australian waters in 1991, he made a big splash. Migaloo's albinism quickly made him the focus of whale researchers and tourists alike. But things have changed. Not only does Migaloo now share that title with another albino humpback that frequents the waters off Norway's coast, but he's also fathered two white calves – or so we think.
The two whale calves, one of which has been named MJ, short for Migaloo Jr., have been making appearances along the eastern coast of Australia, which makes Migaloo the most likely contender for the fatherhood claim. However, there is a (very small) possibility that the Norway albino may have fathered them instead.
Male humpbacks travel long distances from their cold, nutrient-rich polar feeding grounds to the tropics where they mate, and they have (sometimes) been known to make pit stops at multiple breeding grounds – so we can't completely rule out the Norway whale. But as cetacean researcher Dr Chris Parsons explains, breeding populations tend to stick to specific locales.
"The breeding populations are pretty distinct," he says. "If albino animals are found in geographically very separated breeding grounds, [then chances are that case of] albinism isn't likely to be hereditary, unless there is something weird going on." Because no other albino males have been seen near Australia over the years, Migaloo's fatherhood claim seems strong. "A biopsy skin sample would easily be able to confirm it genetically," adds Parsons.
Like most celebrities, Migaloo has also attracted his share of rumours, including speculation that the yellow and brown marks on his skin are signs of life-threatening cancer. "The yellow markings are not cancer," explains White Whale Research Centre founder Oskar Peterson, who aims to raise awareness about these rare animals by connecting researchers, the media and the public through a database of albino whale sightings. "[What people are seeing is] marine algae that attaches when Migaloo travels up through the Southern Ocean, along with the usual barnacles."
As you might expect, this Southern Ocean algae doesn't do very well in warm water, which explains why Migaloo looks paper-white in some photos and yellow in others. "After his stay in Australia, he looks clean as a whistle," says Peterson. Of course, skin lesions can be a sign of other ailments, like fungal skin infections or viruses, but his weight and behaviour suggest that Migaloo is doing just fine.
A jewel in the crown of Australia's lucrative whale-watching industry, Migaloo has also become a conservation ambassador for his kin across the region. His popularity helped usher in legal changes to keep boats, jet skis and other watercraft farther away from humpbacks.
"It's amazing how big his story has grown over time," says Peterson. "Now that my daughter is 13, she has a strong interest in the marine environment because of Migaloo." Here's hoping Migaloo continues to inspire for years to come.
If you'd like to help the White Whale Research Centre with its Migaloo-tracking work, head on over to their website.
And speaking of white whales, we were lucky enough to spot and film our own 'MJ' off the coast of South Africa. This footage from 2007 shows an almost completely white southern right whale calf swimming alongside its mother off the Cape coast.
Editor's note: The original version of this post claimed that Migaloo was first seen in 1998. It has been updated to reflect the correct year, 1991.