Migaloo—the Famous, Rare Albino Humpback Whale—Might Be Dead

Migaloo, the white humpback that has become one of the most recognizable whales in the world, may now be dead, scientists have said.

The giant mammal was last seen over two years ago, and despite some false sightings in the interim, he is currently missing in action.

Estimated to have been born in 1986, he was first spotted in 1991 in Australia. Migaloo is famed for being one of the only pure-white humpback whales in the world, with a 2011 study of his DNA confirming that he was genetically albino.

He was regularly seen off the coast of Queensland throughout the 1990s, and was confirmed as being male after he was recorded singing, something female humpbacks do not do.

albino whale
Stock image: Southern right whale and its albino calf off Valdes Peninsula in Argentina. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Named by elders of the local aboriginal collective in Hervey Bay, Migaloo means "white fella."

Migaloo migrates just like any humpback in the south Pacific, swimming north along Australia's east coast each year to the Great Barrier Reef where the mating and birthing grounds are between June to August, then back southwards from September to November.

Migaloo is generally sighted between Cooktown and Sydney on the Australian coast, but has occasionally been sighted off New Zealand.

In June last year, Olaf Meynecke, a researcher at Griffith University, told 10 News First Queensland that at the last confirmed sighting, Migaloo had looked unwell.

"He started moving down south at the end of July and it was a little bit out of his normal movement pattern. He made a pretty fast turn down south.

"The photos showed that there was some changes in the skin colouration and he generally didn't look too well."

So, where is he? Just because he has not been seen in a few years, does not necessarily mean he is dead.

"It's not that unusual when monitoring the returning humpback whales that visit the southwest of Ireland, to find that regular returnees simply aren't recorded every year," Pádraig Whooley, Sightings Officer at the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group, told Newsweek.

"Of course Migaloo is so detectable that this seems a little less likely, but he may have delayed his migration to the breeding area, or perhaps he has just not been seen yet."

This was predicted by scientists in 2015, who explained that Migaloo may start to swim further away from the shore as he got older.

According to whale biologist Vanessa Pierotta in an article for the Conversation, Migaloo might migrate later than expected, or go a different way to normal.

"Migaloo's presence may be driven by several factors," she wrote. "This includes social circumstances, such as interactions with other whales (including moving between different pods) or biological needs (the desire to head north to reproduce)."

Sometimes humpbacks choose to not migrate at all some years, staying in the Southern Ocean.

While Migaloo might merely be taking a different route this year, he is under threat from various dangers. As for all humpbacks, Migaloo is at risk of human-caused injury from entanglement in fishing gear and pollution, or predation by killer whales. However, as one of the few albino whales in the world, his celebrity status puts Migaloo in even more danger.

Often, sightseeing boats wanting to get a closer look come too close: in 2003 a boat hit Migaloo while trying to see him, leaving him with multiple scars on his back.

Migaloo is now a "special management marine mammal," meaning that any boats cannot come within 500 meters, and aircraft cannot approach within 610 meters.

Humpback whales can live for between 45 and 50 years in the wild, making Migaloo middle-aged. If Migaloo is still out there, there is hope he will be spotted during the migration south, between September and November.