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Whale experts and tourists hope to see rare creature for first time in four years

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The humpback highway has reopened for another year with hopes the “rock star of the whale world” will make an appearance.

Queensland’s whale season has kicked off with 40,000 gentle giants expected to swim along the east coast between June and November.

There have already been sightings on the Sunshine Coast as the creatures begin their 10,000km journey from Antarctica along Australia’s eastern shoreline to warmer tropical waters.

“Humpback whales spend the summer time in Antarctica feeding and then they switch directions and go north to Australian waters to enjoy the winter here to reproduce,” whale expert Vanessa Pirotta said.

But there is a rare whale who experts and tourists are hoping will travel up the Sunshine State highway.

Related story: Watch unusual whale encounter at marina entrance

Migaloo the white whale has caught public attention over the years for his rare colour.

The male humpback was first spotted in 1991 at Byron Bay when he was estimated to be about two years old.

Samples taken in 2004 confirmed his stark white colour is due to albinism.

He is the only known albino whale in the Australian humpback population but hasn’t been spotted since 2020.

Humpback whales make their way past the Sunshine Coast. Picture: Damien Lange

There are some disputed reports he was killed when he got tangled in a missing shark net in 2021.

But Ms Pirotta gave some good news about the mysterious white whale – he is likely alive.

“Migaloo has not been seen since 2020 and that means it has only been four years which, in my opinion, is not a long time between swims,” she said.

“There’s evidence of there being up to 11 years between whale sightings.”

Whales are recorded to live beyond 50 years but some of the biggest risk factors to their lives are human activities including fishing gear, boats and pollution and natural predators like orcas.

  • Best places to see whales from the Sunshine Coast mainland: Point Cartwright, Point Arkwright, Point Perry, Devils Kitchen (Noosa National Park), Mooloolaba Spit, Moffat Beach Headland, Double Island Point Lighthouse, Mount Coolum and Alex Bluff

She said Migaloo is known to travel between waters in Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica so might just not have been spotted in a few years.

As to reports the whale may have been killed in a shark net, Ms Pirotta dismissed the “extreme” claims.

“It is a pretty big ocean out there, we can’t jump to assumptions too soon,” she said.

Migaloo enjoys tourism protections due to his celebrity status.

“He is what we call the rock star of the whale world. He’s pretty famous, so he has extra protection around him,” she said.

More than 127,000 domestic visitors are expected to be attracted to see the whales.

There has already been a 37 per cent increase in interest in nature-based tourism this year compared to 2023.

It is expected to bring $5.6 billion to the Queensland economy.

“Not only is it good for tourism … (and) our visitor economy, but it educates people on the importance of the delicate ecosystem,” Tourism Minister Michael Healy said.

A humpback whale gives a wave. Picture: Shutterstock

Marine tour operator Peter Lynch said 2024 was shaping up to be a bumper one for whale sightings.

“This year we expect to see more whales than in previous years,” he said.

“It’s a recovering population and it’s another success story that Australia and Queensland should be proud of.

“From 500 whales in the days when hunting finished to maybe up to 35,000 to 40,000 whales now making that annual journey.”

Hervey Bay is a particularly iconic spot for whale watching thanks to the calm water sheltered by K’gari (formerly Fraser Island).

Humpback whales often stay with their young for up to 20 days in the region.

“It’s a location where we see whales, particularly humpback whales, go to enjoy the shallow areas,” Ms Pirotta said.

“It’s a lovely resting area. It’s a potential area for social life. It’s a wonderful spot.”

However, it’s not the only spot tourists will likely see a whale this season as they migrate towards the tropical far-north waters.

Bundaberg, the Whitsundays, Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are all other favoured resting bays for humpback whales on their journey north.

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