Baby Moby Dick? Rare white humpback whale calf filmed off Australia
A white, pearly baby whale called a humpback is captured near Australia’s shores, which has led to speculation about whether it’s a highly uncommon albino whale. Some also wondered if the calf was an offspring from ” Migaloo,” a white whale similar to that of the legendary Moby Dick.
Drone operator Jaydyn Mathewson spied the pale whale late in July, floating alongside its mother in the turquoise waters off New South Wales’s northern coast. The whales travel into this area of the beach in eastern Australia during the summer months between June and August to get married and give birth after having traveled north from the fertile food sources of Antarctica and return between September to November.
But, experts aren’t sure to attribute the calf’s characteristics due to albinism. This rare genetic condition is caused by a recessive gene that disrupts the cells ability to make melanin, the substance that produces pigmentation in skin, hair, and eyes. This causes the appearance of a pale complexion and pink eyes.
Although rarely recorded, light hues are not uncommon in newborn whales. Wally Franklin, a cetacean marine scientist and researcher working at the Oceania Project, an organization dedicated to studying and protecting dolphins and whales, said on Live Science. “They are born with a down covering which appears very light and whitish in the light and as a result they are mistakenly considered to be albino,” the researcher explained. “The initial down covering dissipates usually within a week and the normal black and white pigmentation is established.”
Photographers also recorded images of the two infants “Moby Dicks” off the state of New South Wales in recent weeks. The first was observed close to Burrewarra Point at the southernmost point of New South Wales by an unmanned drone late in June, appearing to shine beneath the waves. One Other was observed in the middle of July in mid-July at Lennox Head in the north, and it was recorded near its mother until it disappeared beneath her belly.
To determine if these children are albino-like requires surveillance throughout time, as well as skin samples. Whales with confirmed albinism are incredibly scarce. “The reality is that the only albino in the eastern Australian humpback whale population is the very well known ‘Migaloo,'” Franklin stated.
Migaloo, whose name means “White Fella” in several Australian Aboriginal languages, was first spotted in 1991 off the country’s west coast, which falls along another humpback whale migration route from Antarctica. It took close to 15 years to establish his albino-like status based on the skin cells sloughed away, showing he had the genetic marker of albinism.
Albinism can cause increased sensitivity to cold and sunlight, making animals more susceptible to predators. But Migaloo has survived to adulthood and is an active and healthy whale. “The observational evidence is that he gets along with other humpbacks in a very normal way,” Franklin stated.
Migaloo hasn’t been observed since 2020. However, a slender adult male humpback appeared in the waters off Australia’s Queensland coast earlier in the year, which sparked speculation that it might be Migaloo. However, for it is unlikely that the calves with white horns are Migaloo’s, Migaloo would need to mate with one of the females with the rare albinism mutation.
What’s more likely, Franklin said, is that the sightings are the result of a rare good news environmental story: conservation has led to the resurgence of the Australian humpback population in the last 60 years, from a few hundred in the 1960s to tens of thousands today. It’s a rise in the percentage of children born in the waters of calving off the eastern coast of Australia.
“Hence there are increased sightings of newborns occurring along the coast,” Franklin explained. “With so much interest in the humpback migration, we are both sighting and receiving increased coverage of these beautiful light colored new born calves, which is wonderful.”