End-of-the-week wildlife: a real Moby-Dick!

You probably don’t know that Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, featuring a white sperm whale, was based in part on a real whale: another white sperm whale named Mocha Dick who lived in the Pacific and was named after a Chilean island.  Whalers vied to catch him, and he’s supposed to have survived over 100 killing attempts before he was finally taken down in 1838 or thereabouts.  But there’s now an albino whale who’s protected, and portrayed in this tweet I got from Matthew:

As Wikipedia notes, Migaloo is

. . .an albino humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) that travels up and down the east coast of Australia [and who] became famous in local media because of its rare, all-white appearance. Migaloo is the only known all-white specimen and is a true albino. First sighted in 1991, the whale was named for an indigenous Australian word for “white fella”. To prevent sightseers approaching dangerously close, the Queensland government decreed a 500-m (1600-ft) exclusion zone around him.

The Pacific Whale Foundation has a site devoted solely to Migaloo.  There’s a scientific paper about him that concludes he’s probably a real albino, not just a leucistic whale or some other hypo-pigmented cetacean. He’s now estimated at between 35-39 years old, so he’s getting up there (humpbacks can live 80 years or so, but the average is about 50).

But genetics apparently has told us not only that Migaloo is not only a true albino (it’s always the same gene in mammals that mutates, so it should be easy to tell with a small tissue sample), but also that he’s a male:

Scientists were initially skeptical to state Migaloo has albinism because his eyes are brown, rather than the typical red or pink. In the past he has been called the more conservative terms “all-white”, or “hypo-pigmented”. However, a 2011 study of his DNA by researchers at the Australian Marine Mammal Centre found a genetic variation leading to albinism.

Genetic testing confirmed another fact about Migaloo: he is a male. Scientists already knew this to be the case because of his song. While both male and female humpback whales can produce sounds, only the males sing songs. In 1998 researchers first recorded Migaloo singing, thus indicating he is a male. This was confirmed by genetic testing in 2004.

Now I’m not sure what “a genetic variation leading to albinism” is, because all albino mammals I know of have pink eyes, so I’ll reserve judgment for the time being. Other white whales—humpbacks and other species—are known to exist, and you can read about them on the Pacific Whale Foundation site.  Meanwhile, enjoy these videos of Migaloo. In this first one, he comes very close, but since they didn’t approach him, there was no violation of the law:

And another. That whale is whiter than white!


  1. Joseph Stans
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The Japanese will be feeding too to cats in no time. they have already dispatched the whale killing fleet.

  2. Christopher
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    The BBC Radio program In Our Time recently discussed Moby Dick (I happened to listen to it just this morning during my commute). It’s available as a podcast for anyone who is interested.

    It does make me wonder whether there have been any coastal or seafaring peoples who deified the whale? yes, it’s important to some cultures and has religious significance to some but as far as I can recall, any culture that encountered whales ate them. Many cultures have many different animals that they raise to the level of a deity, or at least a “spirit animal” (like orcas have been), and have taboos against harm and consumption but have any chosen the blue or humpback whales? If any creatures deserve awe-inspired worship, it’s whales in my book.

  3. Curt Nelson
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s strange that albinism crops up in such a wide variety of animals. I guess pigmentation is controlled by a single gene that is conserved across the animal kingdom.

    I heard that despite having a lot of cells, because of their great size, whales don’t have much of a problem with cancer.

    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      The pigment melanin is conserved across the animal kingdom, but several genes are needed for its synthesis and distribution, and their mutations can cause albinism:


  4. Paul Matthews
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t get around to commenting on a previous post with the flying squirrel photo that seeing one of those critters is on my bucket list. Seeing a humpback is also on my bucket list. Strange coincidence that both these bucket-list animals should appear in WEIT posts on the same day. Seeing a white humpback would really be special!

  5. Pliny the in Between
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I was aware of the Mocha Dick story. Another source for the story came from the real-life sinking of the whaler Essex by a bull sperm whale. There’s at least one great book on the ordeal (At least one longboat of survivors made it back home with the aid of a bit of cannibalism of their dead comrades) and I believe a movie loosely based on the story came out within the last few years.

  6. Liz
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink


  7. Posted January 12, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I often wonder if Starbuck, chief mate of the Pequod, saw Mocha Dick and exclaimed “Wow, that is Grande.”

  8. Mark R.
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful creature. Thanks for introducing me to “Migaloo” (the whale and the word).

    So is true albinism an inheritable trait? Or is the mutation completely random for each individual?

    • Posted January 12, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      It’s an autosomal recessive trait driven by mutations in one or more gene(s) involved in melanin production. As a recessive trait it take two alleles (copies of the gene) to show up. If you have one copy you will not an albino; but you kids could beef you mate with someone who also has a mutation in that gene (it need not be the same mutation).

      There is an x-linked version of albinism that is an exception; all males carrying it will have the trait (since they have only one copy of the X chromosome) but females will have this form only if they have both copies.

      • Mark R.
        Posted January 12, 2018 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the clarification; I understand. My biology 101 needs a refresher course. (Let alone my High School biology.)

        So the x-linked version acts like male-pattern-baldness / color blindness. Interesting.

      • nicky
        Posted January 13, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        I thought the X-linked albinism was ‘ocular albinism’, a very different type of affection.
        I wonder why people are so fond of albino animals. Albino lions & tigers, albino pythons and now albino whales. Of course, most lab mice actually are albinos, for some unfathomable reasons.
        And yes, it appears to be the same recessive mutation across species. Just like, say, achondroplasia. IIRC the english bulldoch suffers from achondroplasia.
        Note, that Megaptera eye looks pretty red to me.

  9. rickflick
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s curious to me that the barnacles on the whale seem to be as white as the whale. Maybe it’s just spray paint. 😎

    • nicky
      Posted January 13, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Not barnacles (ask Darwin), but own body button protrusions (maybe they have a proper name).

  10. Posted January 12, 2018 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    “Now I’m not sure what “a genetic variation leading to albinism” is, because all albino mammals I know of have pink eyes….”
    Don’t some human albinos have blue eyes, or shades thereof?

    • nicky
      Posted January 13, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      The eyes of albinos look red because one can:
      1- see the vessels in the iris and
      2- the reflection of retinal and choroidal vessels shining through the basically colourless iris.
      (of course, albinos have red blood. Albinism affects melanin, not the heamoglobin pigment).
      And yes from some angles their irises appear blueish or greyish.
      There is a lot to do about Albino humans in Africa, in some instances they are considered good luck, in others like devils, and sometimes they are even killed for muti.

  11. zytigon
    Posted January 13, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    In the U.K last Sunday 7th Januray 2018 there was a brilliant film by David Attenborough on ichthyosaur fossils found on the Jurassic coast of Britain. The large slabs of limestone were filmed being taken from the cliffs and etched away by small drills to reveal a nearly complete adult dolphin sized skeleton. The program was called “Attenborough & the sea dragon”

    The film is still on BBC iplayer. It also showed other amazing slabs with complete ichthyosaur fossils being kept at Stuttgart museum.

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