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‘"Migaloo" was the name of a white humpback whale which was seen in Australian waters some time ago, and still appears from time to time … recently, I heard a white whale calf had also been seen. In the language of Australia’s indigenous people, it simply means "White One’" - and I have the greatest admiration for Australian conservationists and marine biologists who didn’t immediately christen it "Moby Dick".
We didn’t see Migaloo when we visited in 2010, but we did cruise on the boat named after it, the Spirit of Migaloo, to see some of his friends. This is just one of the boats that set out from many places on the Queensland coast to take people out to see the whales. She's a modern, luxurious catamaran fitted with the latest instrumentation.
'But we don't use radar or sonar' they said .'It would disturb the whales too much'
So they rely on experience and know-how - and no doubt messages from a friendly helicopter pilot - to find them, and so confident are they that they offer a refund in the event of not seeing any. However, they do use audio equipment, so that passengers can hear the whale songs.
Every Southern winter, that is, from June to November, Southern Humpback whales migrate along the eastern coast of Australia from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to their breeding grounds further north, off the coast of tropical Queensland.
When we’re talking about whales, we tend not to measure them in metres, or even feet and inches. In Britain, the usual unit of measurement is London buses; weight is measured in African elephants … an adult humpback whale weighs as much as eleven elephants.
To get a better idea of the size, the triangular sunshade on the upper deck of the ‘Spirit of Migaloo’ is the size and shape of the tail of an adult humpback.
I was expecting a series of splashes and spouts some distance away, but some of them even got close enough to the boat to enable some really good photos or video to be taken ... IF you were quick enough.
That's one of the advantages of digital photography. You can take a 'machine gun' approach which, admittedly, results in some shots of blank sea, These can easily be discarded, though in a way that wasn't possible with film ... unless you were VERY rich!
We found ourselves once more in ‘whale country’ when we visited Alaska six years later. As we sailed down the Tracy Arm into Juneau, we ate breakfast with one eye on our plates and the other out to sea, looking for whales.
‘What we should do’ said a fellow passenger ‘is yell ‘Whales’, then when others arrive, pretend we’re arguing about the Six Nations Cup!’
‘How’s your swimming?’ I asked!
We did see a few blows and splashes, but we would get a far better view on our excursion; a boat trip from Auke Bay, along the inlet, especially to see whales. And, they were so confident we’d see some that they promised to refund us $100 if we didn't see any.
But, we did, and not only whales. Sea lions were chilling out on a marker buoy, while more were fighting to get on to it. And, we passed close to Admiralty Island, which, they told us, held the greatest concentration of grizzly bears anywhere. We didn't see any, though. It was early in the year, and maybe they were still in hibernation?
What we did see was lots of humpback whales: almost the same kind as those we saw in Queensland, but we had a slightly better view. These were, in fact, Northern Humpback Whales … but let’s not get too particular. I doubt if the whales would, if the two ‘tribes’ ever chanced to meet. The skipper said he wasn’t allowed to approach too closely, and my cameras couldn’t zoom enough to get really good pictures.
Who cares about pictures, though? We saw whales … and maybe, one day, we’ll come across a whale that hasn’t read the rule book, and approaches the boat?
The humpback is, of course, only one kind of whale, so the list is by no means closed. We have no plans at the moment to go out especially looking for some more. But, the best encounters occur when you least expect them.