Humpback whales are on the move along Australia’s east coast from June to November each year, swimming, breaching and tail slapping their way up to the Great Barrier Reef to escape the southern winter chill and find a warm, sheltered spot to expand their family. While all of these majestic creatures are awe-inspiring to see, one in particular makes quite a splash – Migaloo the white humpback.

White humpback whales

A purely white humpback whale does not have melanin pigments in its skin. A unique combination of genes from the parent whales are needed to produce white offspring, making them incredibly rare.

One of the most famous of these on the Great Barrier Reef is Migaloo (the aboriginal word for ‘white fella’), one of the few known white humpback whales in the world.

Right now the majestic Migaloo is on his way north to the Reef, having been spotted off Queensland’s Gold Coast on 11 July.

Migaloo on the Gold Coast, July 2017

The first ever sighting of Migaloo was in 1991, off Byron Bay in New South Wales when he was around 3-5 years old. He’s been seen migrating along Australia’s east coast in most years since then, spotted as far south as Tasmania and as far north as Cape Tribulation in far north Queensland.

How do we know he’s a he?

In 1998 researchers recorded Migaloo singing. While both male and female humpback whales produce sound, only the males make the melodic songs that we now associate with humpback whales. His gender was further confirmed by DNA when researchers collected skin samples in 2004.

In 2011, another white humpback was spotted in the Great Barrier Reef’s Whitsundays region, this time a calf estimated to be only weeks old. Tourist Wayne Fewings captured the stunning photo below.

White humpback whale calf snapped in the Whitsundays by tourist Wayne Fewings in 2011

Without DNA evidence from the calf, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s related to Migaloo or not. In fact, it’s possible that the calf was born to two parents who are dark grey but who both happen to carry the white gene.

In Queensland, where whale watching is a popular tourist activity, white whales receive special treatment. They are declared ‘special management marine mammals’ which means that water craft and aircraft need to give them a wider berth – more than 500 metres for boats and other water craft and more than 610 metres for aircraft. However, that doesn’t apply to the whales, who obviously don’t read the regulations as this amazing video of Migaloo shows!

Humpback stats


up to 16 metres


40-45 tonnes

Pectoral fin length

up to 5 metres

Brain size



1.2-1.5 metres long


up to 2000 kg / day when feeding including tiny crustaceans like krill, plankton and small fish


up to 50 years


9-10,000 km round trip


approximately 24,500 in 2015 estimated in the east coast migratory humpback population


3.5 knots (6.5km/hr)–5 knots (9.2km/hr); fastest speed 9–10 knots (18.5km/hr)

Header image credit: @ORRCA_Inc @Migaloo1