Australians fear that the world’s only known white humpback whale could be slaughtered as Japan’s whaling fleet prepares to embark on its annual hunt in the Southern Ocean.
The unique male whale, named Migaloo – an Aboriginal word for “white fella” – has become a celebrity in Australia since being spotted for the first time in 1991.
Each year Migaloo – along with thousands of other humpbacks – migrates from the icy seas of Antarctica to the warm shallows of the South Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef.
A few months later the whales, the females leading their newly-born calves, return to Antarctica.
The arrival of 45ft-long Migaloo – believed to be the only completely white humpback in the world – is keenly anticipated by whale watchers along Australia’s east coast.
He has been hailed as modern day Moby Dick, even though the creature in Herman Melville’s 1851 classic was a sperm whale.
Conservationists fear that Migaloo is so accustomed to whale watching and fishing boats, that he will be easy pickings for Japanese hunters.
With the southern hemisphere summer approaching, the Japanese whaling fleet is preparing to leave port within days. It refuses to say exactly when.
It has declared that for the first time it will kill 50 humpbacks, as well as 50 fin whales and hundreds of minke whales.
The Japanese argue that after decades of hunting fin and humpback whales have recovered to sufficient levels that they can now withstand being harpooned again.
The Fisheries Agency in Tokyo refused to rule out killing Migaloo today, with officials offering a blunt “no comment” to media inquiries.
Instead the agency called on Australia and New Zealand to ensure that the Japanese fleet would be protected from anti-whaling ships operated by a militant environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Last year Sea Shepherd threatened to ram the Japanese fleet with a ship fitted with a bulldozer-type blade. The group has been branded environmental terrorists by Tokyo.
“Those two countries maintain the same position as Japan does against the violent action of terrorists,” spokesman Hideki Moronuki told ABC Radio.
“[We] need support from those two countries in order to secure the safety of our crews and (our ships).”
But the captain of Sea Shepherd’s two vessels, Paul Watson, said he had the law on his side because whale hunting was illegal.
“They’re targeting endangered species in a whale sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on whaling.
“If Japan reacts violently to us, causes any injury at all to any of our people, that will backlash very severely on Japan because Japan is the criminal nation here,” he said.
Japan uses a loophole in International Whaling Commission laws to hunt around 1,000 whales each year in the Southern Hemisphere, ostensibly for the purposes of scientific research.
People who have encountered Migaloo on his epic journey of migration describe the sight as a once in a lifetime experience.
“He turned the blue water around him jade-green for two or three metres,” one awe-struck Australian whale-watch operator said of a sighting two years ago.
Scientists are uncertain whether Migaloo is a true albino, or simply has white pigmentation.
In a sign of how healthy the population of humpbacks has become, a female and her calf paid a short visit to Sydney Harbour today.
The pair was noticed entering the harbour from the sea by passengers on a passing ferry and spent about three hours in sheltered waters before continuing their journey south.