Luminous white whale calves captured on camera

*Watch the video in the player above. Video by the University of Otago, music: “Betterdays” by Bensound,

University of Otago researchers have shared stunning drone footage of a luminous white southern right whale swimming near the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands.

A team led by Steve Dawson and Will Rayment gathered the video on a month-long expedition to learn about the whales' body fat and start gauging whether they have access to good feeding grounds.

In the Northern hemisphere, right whales have been struggling, but southern right whales have recovered steadily to reach a population of almost 2000 animals, after almost disappearing in the 19th Century because of whaling.

The striking white colour occurs in about 3 to 4 percent of calves, usually males, making them easy to track from the air, according to drone pilot and marine science PhD student David Johnston.

The researchers say the white pigment is caused by the expression of a recessive gene and usually darkens as the animal grows older, developing into a mottled grey .

Although it makes the young whales easy to see, it doesn't seem to affect their fitness and they have similar chances of surviving to black calves.

The drone footage - which requires a special permit to gather and is cheaper to obtain than using helicopters or airplane footage - will be used to track how the whales' length and fatness changes over time.

“It’s one of the few instances around in conservation in which a species has managed to hang on and begin to slowly claw its way back from the brink. It’s why we’re seeing more and more right whales turning up around mainland New Zealand in recent years,” Rayment says.

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