We tend to think of epic aerials as the mark of a seasoned drone pilot, but after just one week in the sky-high game, a photographer in New Zealand managed to capture one of the most beautiful orca clips we've seen.

Jack Preston had flown his drone above water only once before, so he didn't know what to expect when he sent it high above the Mercury Islands earlier this month. "The orcas just came out of nowhere!" he wrote on Facebook

The whales were searching for stingrays, a staple snack for the New Zealand population. Because rays tend to hide in the seaweed that lines the coastline, orcas often have to venture into the shallows to prod them out.  

"Here in New Zealand, these whales are very opportunistic, but they're also very specialised when they've found a food source," notes orca biologist Dr Ingrid Visser. "Depending on where they're hunting, they'll use very stylised techniques."

In sandy harbours, for example, orcas tend to chase rays at full speed; in locations where there are lots of hiding places, the whales will opt for a more tactical approach:

"They'll selectively find these rays that are under rocks or seaweed, and then one will very carefully grab one by the tip of the tail," explains Visser. "Then another orca will come along and bite the ray." The method doesn't always work out: back in the late '90s, Visser and her colleagues determined that a stingray barb to the throat was the cause of one orca's death

While Preston didn't manage to capture a predation in this clip, getting to watch the killer whales in action was an experience he'll never forget. 

"Wildlife photography is very opportunistic and luck based," he told the New Zealand Herald. "You can't just say 'okay today I'm going out to shoot orca', we were just in the right place at the right time and the conditions that day were perfect for photography and for flying the drone." 


Top header image: Jack Preston/screengrab