Migaloo under threat?

Like the most fabled of whales, Migaloo is elusive. The “white fella” has been seen many times off the east coast of Australia over the past 15 years, but has also disappeared for up to three years at a time. So when the whale researcher Daniel Burns heard too late that the world’s only totally white humpback had passed Cape Byron on a northward migration last June, his disappointment was real.

“You get a lot of reports from people who think they’ve seen Migaloo, but it’s not him,” Burns says. “I’d had a few close calls, but I’d never seen him.”

A few months later, Migaloo turned up again, this time on his southward migration. Burns was in a launch off Byron when an observer from the Southern Cross University whale research centre called and told him Migaloo could be a few kilometres away, off Lennox Head.

“We were able to get close enough to see it was Migaloo. He surfaced a few times with another humpback, and then they both went down for a long time. All of a sudden the other humpback breached, and 10 seconds later Migaloo breached about 30 metres away.”

Many types of whales breach – or make an explosive leap out of the ocean, crashing down again in spray. The humpback does it best. Wing-like pectoral fins make a 35-tonne animal seem ready to take flight. Migaloo’s breach was special. “He’s really striking,” Burns says. “Even when he’s under water you can see him from some distance away. He seems icy blue.”

Like most humpbacks near the Australian east coast, Migaloo was probably headed south to Antarctic waters to feed on krill swarms. There, the whales are joined at the annual summer binge by other cetaceans, including fin whales, the second-biggest on Earth after the blue. Few people have a chance to see a fin, a whale of the remote deep ocean. I shared a glimpse once aboard an icebreaker off eastern Antarctica. It blew across our bow like a sleek railway locomotive puffing steam. Its track was marked by smooth “lakes” left behind on the calm sea surface where it had risen to breathe – the prints of a giant.

Last century commercial whalers hunted parental stocks of these two species to the furthest corners of the oceans. They have lived in the Antarctic, safe from the harpoon, since the countries of the International Whaling Commission agreed on a moratorium that halted whaling in 1986.

Japan wants to start taking them again in a plan to be unveiled at the annual meeting of the commission, in Ulsan, South Korea, in June. Small numbers could be harpooned initially, alongside a greatly expanded minke quota in Japan’s Antarctic “scientific research” program. At about eight tonnes, the minke used to be considered too small to be useful in the commercial whaling era, but it is numerous enough to be targeted for the past 16 years by the world’s only factory whaling fleet.

Last month this Japanese fleet wound up a research program that had taken more than 7000 Antarctic minkes. Its value to science still disputed, the program operated under a clause in the commission’s governing convention that lets each member country issue its scientific permits – including for lethal research.

Maximum use is demanded of byproducts. The whale meat is sold, keeping the industry alive in Japan.

This month the fleet is hunting minkes in the North Pacific, at the start of a program that will also take bryde, sei and sperm whales. Next southern summer it will head south to Antarctica again.

Japan has shown greater interest in fins and humpbacks since the whaling commission’s last meeting, when its scientists said surveys showed their numbers had rocketed ahead in the Antarctic. At that meeting, Japan also said the Antarctic minke could sustain a yearly commercial hunt of 2900.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald/ Andrew Darby