The Naming of Things: Migaloo


Have you heard about the white whale? I don’t mean the one that got away and I’m not referring to Beluga Whales. I mean the other other white whale. The other famous one. Migaloo, the white humpback whale!

An all-white humpback whale was first seen swimming past Byron Bay, the Easternmost part of Australia, on June 28th, 1991. This was the first documented all-white humpback whale in the world. Captain Ahab would have been very excited – everyone else certainly was, and there was significant public interest in naming the unique animal.

It was decided that the elders of an Indigenous tribe near Hervey Bay should give this whale its name and they chose “Migaloo” which, according to the information I could find while researching for this article, is the word from their language that is used to describe a “White Fella.”

Photo by Craig Parry

It’s important to note that despite combing through numerous websites where the origin of Migaloo’s name is described I could find no information about which Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples were actually responsible for his naming nor could I find any clearly identified Indigenous-run website to confirm from the source that “White Fella” is what the word “Migaloo” means in their language. I confess that due to the limitations of my geography and my cell-phone plan I was not able to get in touch with any of the various Indigenous tribes whose traditional territories encompass Hervey Bay but it would be amazing if one day we could share the complete whale tale of Migaloo’s name from the people who named him.

What I did find from the Pacific Whale Foundation was that,

The elders explained their connection to all white or albino animals and that they appear on earth to be respected and revered; that their unique color demonstrates the need to respect all forms of life even if they appear different than ‘normal’. They should be honored with reverence and respect, not discrimination and shame.

Reverence and respect definitely sound good to me where Migaloo, or any whale, is concerned.

Migaloo is part of the east Australian humpback population, which was almost completely wiped out by commercial whaling until it was banned in the 1960s. This population is now estimated to number between 15-17,000. Hooray for the humpback comeback!

If you’d like to learn more about Migaloo there are about a zillion websites devoted to him,  and the now four white/white-ish humpback whales that have been spotted since 1991. The Pacific Whale Foundation even has some of the first ever photos of Migaloo on their site here and you can visit his official site here.

Photo by Sean O’Shea

And if you’d like to learn more about the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia this was the really great resource I started with.

We are lucky enough to have one whale tale featuring Migaloo which you can read here. If you’ve seen him or any other cetacean we would love to hear about it! Share your Whale Tales here.

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