When rumour surfaced of an "albino" southern right whale calf off the coast of South Africa's Western Cape, some speculated it was the very same youngster seen in Australian waters early last month. Since these animals are making their way to the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, this wasn't a likely scenario, but aerial photographer Anton Schutte sent his drone in for a closer look. His beautiful footage confirms this is yet another white whale calf.

Like the Australian whale, this youngster is not a true albino; rather, it was born with leucism, a genetic disorder that results in a partial lack of pigment. It appears healthy, and even engaged in a bit of playful tail-lobbing with mom before heading farther out to sea.  

"Any time that someone gets to be in the presence of these magnificent creatures, it is truly life-changing,” recalls Schutte. "It sticks with you forever, and seeing them from the drone prospective is a whole new amazing experience."

The Australian calf (left) and South African calf (right) show distinct marking patterns. Images: Peter Nicholas/Western Australia Parks and Wildlife, Anton Schutte

The question on everyone's mind is why we're suddenly seeing so many white whales. The most likely explanation is actually quite a simple one: they've always been there. In other words, it's not the whales that are changing, it's us. These kinds of genetic mutations are only expressed in a small percentage of newborn right whales, but the ever-growing popularity of aerial drones means we have more eyes on the ocean at any given time. We're statistically far more likely to see this sliver of the cetacean population today than we would have been even just a few years ago. 

"There are not only more drones out there, but also more whale watchers, divers and underwater cameras!" adds whale scientist Dr Joy Reidenberg, who studies comparative anatomy. In all her years of work, Reidenberg has never encountered a white whale, and sightings like these could help researchers learn more about how these conditions affect the ocean giants throughout their lives.


Top header image: Anton Schutte