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Rare Whale: White Humpback Seen off New Zealand

Jul 06, 2015 01:15 PM EDT

Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, that follower of the white whale, would be stirred to action by recent events. That's because a ghost-colored humpback whale was spotted yesterday in New Zealand, during a survey of whale numbers in the Cook Strait, which separates the north and south islands of that country, a release from the New Zealand Department of Conservation said. 

The whale is thought to be "Migaloo," a white humpback usually seen off Australia, at least 800 to 1000 miles away, noted the release.

The Cook Strait whale count is in its last of four weeks, and is in its 12th year, said the release.

Ted Perano, one of six ex-whalers on the survey team, spotted the white humpback with a normal, dark humpback, the release said.

"This is so unique. I have never seen anything like this in New Zealand," said marine mammal scientist Carlos Olavarria, according to the statement. 

Distinctive features indicate that the white whale is likely Migaloo, which had shiny protuberances behind the dorsal fin-making it called a type of "razor back"--and the particular shape of its dorsal fin, said survey leader Nadine Bott in the statement.

The biologists will compare DNA taken yesterday from the white whale via a biopsy dart, with Migaloo's DNA. They'll also learn then whether the whale is albino or whether its whiteness results from color variation, according to the statement.

"White humpbacks are extremely rare. Only four have been reported in the world," said Nadine Bott, in the release.

Of those, one is Migaloo and another is a whale spotted off Norway this year. Scientists also believe Migaloo has fathered two white calves, which appear along Australia's eastern coast, the agency noted in the release.

This year's Cook Strait Whale Survey has seen a very high count of humpback whales, with 122 spotted up till the end of yesterday, surpassing a previous high of 106 in 2012, said the release.

Follow Catherine at @TreesWhales 

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