First there was the Wellington whale, then came a rare albino humpback whale, tracing the North Island's East Coast.

More whale tales are emerging and scientists expect it to continue.

Humpback whales are being reported more frequently as their populations are recovering, and higher than average sea temperatures are bringing the mammals closer to our shores.

If recovery of the humpback continues, in 20 years sighting the species on our coast will be a mundane affair, says University of Auckland associate professor Rochelle Constantine.

Advertisement

The rare white whale is believed to be either Migaloo, a resident white humpback that hangs around Oceanic waters, or a new whale. It was sighted heading north towards breeding grounds around New Caledonia.

Migaloo is estimated to have been born in 1986 and was first spotted in 1991, passing through Australia's Byron Bay.

Until a white whale calf emerged in September 2011, Migaloo was thought to be the only white whale in existence.

Last Friday members of the Houhora Big Game and Sports Fishing Club spotted a white humpback breaching off Mt Camel, about 50km north of Kaitaia, and managed to capture the spectacle on a cellphone.

A few days earlier commercial cray fisher Joshua Whitley was out casting pots about 16km off the coast of Gisborne when he noticed the white whale near the boat.

A southern right whale in Wellington Harbour this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell
A southern right whale in Wellington Harbour this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Meanwhile a southern right whale made Wellington Harbour its home; in the process causing the Matariki fireworks display planned for last weekend to be delayed.

Whales also made the news in Tuesday's Herald when two "super-rare" pygmy right whales were found dead on a Northland beach.

Department of Conservation marine ranger Cat Peters said the rare marine animals had only been sighted at sea 30 times.

Advertisement

Constantine says the humpback whale population that feeds south of New Zealand once stood at about 20,000.

But that number plummeted into the hundreds until whaling was banned in New Zealand waters in 1964.

A rare white humpback whale has been spotted several times heading north off the east coast which experts say is where breeding grounds for the mammals reside. Photo / Supplied
A rare white humpback whale has been spotted several times heading north off the east coast which experts say is where breeding grounds for the mammals reside. Photo / Supplied

More than 50 years on from the ban, the population is on the rise and around 10,000.

The global population now is just over 80,000.

Constantine has been studying the marine mammals in the South Pacific since 1995.

"This is the time of the year when the humpback whales are moving to the winter breeding ground. It's when we see most of the humpbacks passing New Zealand," she says.

She was able to confirm the growing population thanks to recent scientific endeavours to tag the mammals to track their movements.

"As they recover in numbers we are seeing more humpbacks passing New Zealand. They go past our east and west coast."

"I would like to go back and deploy some more satellite tags; perhaps the Oceanic whales are recovering slower because they migrate on a longer journey to their Australian cousins."

Associate professor Rochelle Constantine.Photo / Supplied
Associate professor Rochelle Constantine.Photo / Supplied

DoC marine ranger Cat Peters, of Russell says an unusually high number of whale sightings this year is due to warmer sea temperatures and easterly winds bringing the whale's food closer to shore.

The sea temperatures also triggered a die-off of penguins this year.

In March, Sir Peter Blake Trust environmental programme manager Bahkti Patel was involved in a project at the Kermadec Islands, one of the most densely populated meeting grounds for humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere.

At the islands they were able to collect skin samples and carry out testing to determine the whales' gender, health and relations to other whales.

Oceanic humpback populations are recovering, slowly but surely, she says.

"Certainly we can be confident numbers are recovering - there are two population of humpbacks in this area.

"The Oceania whales are recovering slower. Rochelle is looking if there a link to the longer migration of Oceania whales with the recovery rates we see."

It wasn't until 2015 the whales were tagged and they were able to trace their movements.

Humpback whales are continuing to recover from gravely depleted numbers during the era of whaling that ended in New Zealand waters in the sixties. Photo / Ingrid Visser
Humpback whales are continuing to recover from gravely depleted numbers during the era of whaling that ended in New Zealand waters in the sixties. Photo / Ingrid Visser

Orca Trust founder and marine biologist Ingrid Visser says she has had several reports of a white humpback whale travelling north on the east coast.

A white humpback has been recorded in the Atlantic Ocean but Visser is 99 per cent sure the sightings would not be of that whale.

It is possible the new whale could be the offspring of Migaloo.

Visser says the new whale is either albino or leucistic, meaning it has white pigmentation. The difference between the two is that albino animals have pink eyes while leucistic animals have black eyes.

It is not yet known whether Migaloo is albino or leucistic.

Constantine will head to Antarctica in February with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research to find feeding humpbacks and tag them to track their migration patterns.

"In the next 20 years, humpbacks will be a sight that is not remarked on. It's everyone's goal. When we stopped whaling we were at the forefront," she says.

Rare white humpback whale Migaloo. Photo / AAP
Rare white humpback whale Migaloo. Photo / AAP

Anyone sighting the white whale has been asked to report it to the Orca Research Trust on 0800 733 6722.

MIgaloo: The White Humpback Whale

• First seen off Byron Bay in 1991, at the time believed to be the only all white humpback.

• Australian state Queensland has animal welfare legislation that includes a special clause just for Migaloo, granting him additional protection from harassment by onlookers.

• In 2004 sloughed skin samples collected by researchers gave a clear genetic fingerprint showing Migaloo was male.

• In 2011 whale watchers spotted a similarly all-white male juvenile and named him Migaloo Jr, despite no evidence the two were related.

• There are four white whales recorded worldwide and Migaloo is understood to have two white calves, which have been seen on Australia's east coast.

• Migaloo - an Aboriginal word for "white fella"

• Scientists are uncertain whether Migaloo is a true albino, has pink eyes, or simply has white pigmentation.