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Effort to help injured right whale off U.S. coast was first of its kind

This photo taken by an aerial survey team for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission shows an injured right whale calf swimming alongside its mother about 8 miles off the coast of Georgia on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission via AP)

When scientists used a dart to give an antibiotic to a badly injured newborn whale off the coast of Florida last week, it was the first time the system was used for that purpose.

A crew of trained specialists got close enough to the injured calf and its mother off the coast of Fernandina Beach last Wednesday to inject the baby using a syringe fired from an air gun.

READ MORE: Fourth North Atlantic right whale calf of the season already injured

The system was developed about 12 years ago by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Centre for Coastal Studies, according to Brian Sharp, director of marine mammal rescue and research for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“It was developed as a way to give sedatives to entangled whales whose entanglements were so complex they couldn’t be disentangled through traditional means,” Sharp said in an interview Friday.

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Click to play video: 'Roundtable held on dealing with right whale deaths' Roundtable held on dealing with right whale deaths
Roundtable held on dealing with right whale deaths – Nov 8, 2019

He said the system is modelled off one used for elephants, but is many times larger. One dart can carry a maximum of 57 millilitres of drugs.

“It’s a tool in the toolkit,” he said.

In this case, the dart with antibiotics was fired from a nearby boat in an effort to help the calf fight off injuries consistent with a propeller strike.

The injured calf is the fourth that’s been spotted off the southeastern U.S. coast since mid-December, but it has not been seen since last week.

READ MORE: Well-researched North Atlantic right whale spotted with new calf

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with scientists estimating 400 or fewer still exist.

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It’s believed there are now fewer than 90 breeding females, and deaths have outpaced births in recent years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2020.

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