HuffPost acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land this article was created on, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the interviewee’s lands: the Quandamooka people and the Butchulla people and pay respects to Elders past and present and celebrate the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their unbroken connections to the lands and waters of Australia.
SYDNEY — Like a luminous spirit drifting from darkness, the giant Migaloo brings an eerie energy as he breaks the surface of the water.
In winter, huddles of people gather on the ocean side of Minjerribah, also known as North Stradbroke Island, a coastal paradise off Queensland, hoping to catch a glimpse of Migaloo’s glow.
It’s a one-in-a-million chance encounter that sparks a certain kind of joy, said Delvene Cockatoo-Collins, an artist from the small Minjerribah town of Goompee (Dunwich). In fact, witnessing any yalingbila (humpback whale) is a special moment. Cockatoo-Collins would know - her family has been on the island of 2,000 people since its beginning.
“Mum talks about, when she was little, there weren’t many whales about at all,” she told HuffPost Australia from her art studio. “My Aunty Gwen remembers going over to Moreton [island] and seeing the whales being pulled up at the whaling station. At that period in the 40s and 50s whales were being hunted.”
World-famous Migaloo is now a muse for Cockatoo-Collins, who draws inspiration from the giant ethereal creature and his grey-hued counterparts that migrate past North Stradbroke Island from May, travelling north to warmer climes and returning with their calves in late winter and spring.
In a year that has brought so much upheaval including travel restrictions to the island that caused Cockatoo-Collins to temporarily close her store, knowing the humpbacks were out in the ocean following their ancient migration patterns brought a calming sense of certitude to the artist.
“In all of this uncertainty, what has given comfort is the natural rhythms of the seasons that have maintained their promises throughout this year,” she said. “In May, with the parrots and from June onwards the migration of the whales, allowing us to wait for them as we always do.”
Named by the Butchulla people of K’gari (Hervey Bay, southern Queensland) in the 1990s, Migaloo means “white fulla” in the Badjala language, Butchulla elder from the Wonamutta Clan Nai Nai Bird told HuffPost.
Bird explained that in the “First Time”, the god Beeral sent messenger Yindingie to create the land with a “helper.”
“Her name was K’gari (pronounced Gurri) and she was a beautiful white spirit from the sky. She loved helping Yindingie and worked very hard,” she said.
“When Captain Cook sailed past K’gari Butchulla people thought they were Migaloos, (white spirits) travelling on a cloud.”
Bird said this Dreamtime story may have created a spiritual link between Butchulla people and albino creatures, like Migaloo.
The whale has made annual headline-grabbing appearances since the first recorded spotting off Byron Bay in 1991.
Bird spotted him in June this year, but there’ve been just a few recorded sightings in 2020, including off the coast of Port Macquarie, 500kms north of Sydney.
According to Stephanie Stack, Chief Biologist at the Pacific Whale Foundation, the lack of sightings doesn’t mean bad news.
“He is probably somewhere on the ‘southern route’ by now, I would guess [off] New South Wales,” she said. “This time of year they’re heading south again to the feeding ground. Males migrate further off-shore.”
Hawaii-based Stack, who’s been following Migaloo’s progress for years now, tells HuffPost via phone that the albino humpback was born “between 1986 and 1989”, making him around 31-34 years old. As an adult humpback, that would make Migaloo about 15 metres long, weighing between 22,000 and 36,000 kilograms.
Why whales are important to First Nations peoples
The story of whales and their ancient migration is central to lore for many First Nations groups along the Australian coast. Cockatoo-Collins recalls when she was a child, whales wouldn’t dare swim close to the island. These days it’s a cherished experience waiting on the headland with family to see the whales pass so close you “can see their skin glisten”.
“For me, it is about that shared joy but also the increased respect for mother nature and how the whales have responded to that respect,” she said, referring to the Australian legislation in place to protect the mammals.
“I think the whales know people are waiting for them.”
In his book ‘Dark Emu’ author Bruce Pascoe writes about the importance of whales to the Yuin people of the New South Wales south coast.
“Ritualised interaction with killer whales encouraged the mammals to herd larger whales into the harbour, where they would be driven into shallow water and harvested by the Yuin, who would then share the feast, not just with neighbouring clans, but with the killer whales themselves, who would receive the tongue.”
Pascoe writes that similar relationships between First Nations peoples and whales and dolphins have been reported at many other Australian beaches.
And for Cockatoo-Collins, Migaloo’s migration plays a role in her connection to Country. “Connection to Country to me means that you know your country and your country and community knows you. It’s home and family,” she said.
“It is knowing that your mother, grandmothers, grandfathers and their grandparents lived here and took care of this place and each other. It is seeing and understanding what they left for us to look after - each other and this place. It is knowing and understanding your place. And in that, your sense of identity. Where you belong within a family unit and within a community.
“The reason why I [use Migaloo in my art] is because of that going out and waiting for him and that memory in time with family. My art is about my connection within my family unit and to this country - Quandamooka Country.”
Craig Parry Photography supplied the feature image in this report.