The fourth North Atlantic right whale calf of the 2019-2020 calving season has been spotted off the coast of the United States — but officials say it’s already been injured, likely by a vessel.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the newest member of the endangered species was spotted approximately eight nautical miles off the coast of Georgia on Wednesday.
NOAA says that the calf appears to have injuries to its mouth, which could hamper its ability to nurse and feed.
The S-shaped gashes, roughly 60 centimetres apart, were likely inflicted by the propeller of a fishing boat or similar vessel, Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the right whale recovery program in the U.S. Southeast for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the Associated Press.
She said Thursday that humans may be helpless to do anything to treat the injured calf.
“If this was a human baby, this calf would be in the NICU right now,” Zoodsma said, referring to a hospital’s intensive care unit for babies. “It’s highly unlikely that we can fix this animal.”
An aerial survey team saw the calf and its mother swimming Wednesday about 12.8 kilometres off the Georgia coast. Zoodsma said the survey team didn’t realize the calf was hurt until later, when photographs taken from the air were viewed at full size on a large screen.
She said the photos showed one gash left a loose flap of skin on the baby whale’s head that would be difficult to heal.
Zoodsma estimated the calf is about a week old and measures three to 4.5 metres long.
Whale experts were discussing potential options for trying to help the injured calf. But they appeared to be limited.
In some cases, conservationists have been able to inject injured right whales with antibiotics using needles fired from an air gun, Zoodsma said. But those are designed for use on large adults, not newborns.
Also, scientists worry that any attempt by humans to get close could stress the baby whale and make its condition even worse. Plus there’s a risk of angering its mother.
“This is an injured newborn calf and how would the mom react to us approaching it?” Zoodsma said. “The mom could be very defensive and aggressive.”
The whale has been spotted travelling with its mother, which NOAA has identified as Derecha, which means “right” in Spanish.
NOAA says they first spotted Derecha was in December 1993.
The mother is believed to be at least 27 years old and that this is her fourth calf. Experts believe the newborn is only days old.
Anyone with information about the calf’s injuries and additional sightings is asked to contact 1-877-WHALE-HELP (1-877-942-5343).
NOAA believes the vessel that struck the animal may have propeller damage.
Teams with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium were out searching this morning to try and locate the pair in an attempt to assess the calf’s condition.
The birth of any right whale is considered significant in the ocean conservation movement as the species remains critically endangered, with approximately 411 whales remaining.
Since 2017, at least 29 North Atlantic right whales have died in U.S. and Canadian waters. Most of their deaths were a result of entanglements with fishing gear and collisions with ships.
Last month, an international conservation group announced the birth of the first North Atlantic right whale calf of the 2019-2020 calving season.
With files from The Canadian Press, Associated Press and Graeme Benjamin