A rare white humpback whale spotted in Cook Strait yesterday by Department of Conservation researchers is thought to be 'Migaloo', a white humpback usually seen off Australia.
The white humpback whale was seen with another normal black humpback during the Cook Strait Whale Survey which is in the last week of its 12th annual four-week count of whales passing through Cook Strait.
The two whales were first spotted by Ted Perano, one of six ex-whalers on the survey team, but it was only when approached by boat that researchers were surprised to find one was white.
"I thought, wow that whale is white, that is amazing!" said John Gibbs, skipper of the boat.
"This is so unique. I have never seen anything like this in New Zealand," was the reaction of marine mammal scientist Carlos Olavarria, who was also on the boat.
Survey leader, Nadine Bott, said distinctive features on the whale like those on Migaloo strongly indicated it was the same whale. They include the dorsal fin's distinctive shape and also distinctive spiny protuberances behind the dorsal fin. Animals with these are commonly called 'razor backs'.
Migaloo - Aboriginal for 'white fella' – was first seen off eastern Australia in 1991 and has been seen there almost every year since.
A skin sample for DNA analysis was taken from the white whale yesterday with a biopsy dart and will be compared with Migaloo's DNA to confirm whether it is definitely the same whale. The analysis will also identify whether the whale is albino or whether its whiteness is due to colour variation.
"White humpbacks are extremely rare. Only four have been reported in the world," said Nadine Bott.
"Migaloo is the most famous and another white humpback whale was spotted in Norway this year. Migaloo is thought to have fathered two white calves which have been making appearances along Australia's eastern coast. One has been named MJ, short for Migaloo junior."
The annual whale survey, a DOC partnership with OMV New Zealand, is assessing humpback whale recovery since commercial whaling ended in 1964 and is timed for humpback whales' northern migration to South Pacific breeding grounds. It also aims to estimate the size of the humpback population in our waters.
The survey this year has also had a spectacularly high count of humpback whales with 122 spotted up till the end of yesterday, considerably surpassing its previous highest of tally of 106 humpbacks in 2012.
Nadine Bott said this was a promising indication humpback whale numbers are increasing in our waters.
Note on photos: The yellow markings on the photos of the white whale taken yesterday are marine algae. They would have attached in the colder waters of Antarctica but will come off as the whale moves into warmer waters