OFF ST. SIMON’S ISLAND, Georgia — After days of bad weather, Clay George and his crew were back on the water, scanning the horizon for a large splash or dark blur gliding through the cobalt chop.
They set out one morning last week in hopes of finding a calf, newly born to one of 22 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales that have migrated to their birthing grounds between Savannah, Ga., and Cape Canaveral, Fla.
But only hours after it had been born, the calf had been severely injured, probably by propeller blades, like so many right whales before it. No one had seen the calf for weeks.
After a few hours of fruitless searching on a rubber speedboat borrowed from the federal government, a call came over the radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s slow-moving Twin Otter, flying about a thousand feet above them.
“This is the R/V Hurricane, go ahead,” responded George, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
On the other end of the radio, Melanie White, a biologist with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, spoke cryptically to avoid alerting other mariners to what they had spotted.
“The Coast Guard reported an alpha,” she said. “We just broke for verification.”
White sent coordinates, and George’s crew gunned the boat’s powerful twin outboard motors, racing 10 miles east of St. Simon’s Island.
Until this cloudless morning, just six newborns had been documented this calving season, which typically extends from December through March. Each one is critical to the species’ survival.
Now, with a report of a right whale swimming not far away, they hoped to find the injured calf still alive.
The past decade has been devastating for the giant mammals, putting them on a path toward extinction. Scientists estimate that only about 400 remain.
Over the last three years, 30 right whales have been found dead, and the overall population has declined about 20 percent since 2010. When a cause of death has been determined, scientists have found that all had died as a result of humans, either from entanglements in fishing lines or being hit by ships.
At the same time, births have declined sharply. Between 2001 and 2009, right whales averaged nearly 24 births a year. Over the past decade, that number fell by half. In 2018, not a single calf was born, which was unprecedented. Last year, only seven were born.
Not only has the number of breeding females dwindled, fewer have been giving birth.
Over the past three years, just 5 percent of females available to give birth — those known to have a previous calf and those that hadn’t given birth in the previous two years — had produced a newborn, according to a report by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Between 2009 and 2016, by contrast, an average of 28 percent of those females had given birth.
For the species to survive, they need to be producing closer to 29 calves a year, said Michael Moore, director of the Marine Mammal Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“They need to be able to reproduce to their full potential,” he said, which should be once every three years.
Scientists have attributed the low birth rate, in part, to increased entanglements, which has forced many whales to expend significant amounts of energy while towing fishing lines and lobster or crab pots.
Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, said the “arithmetic of extinction” — the number of births versus deaths — is “likely not enough to make up for the high mortality rates and the long period of very low calving in recent years.”
That’s why there was so much concern for the injured calf born last month to a mother called Derecha, named for the distinctive pattern of callosities on the right side of her head. The apparent vessel strike exacted a large gash on its jaw and lip, potentially impairing its ability to nurse and feed.
Mayo called the potentially lethal wound “a tragedy for the dwindling population, so precariously close to extinction."
When George’s crew arrived at the coordinates, they found a large vessel floating nearby. It was a team of shark researchers with the group OCEARCH, and they had been the first to spot the nearby whale.
“Thanks for reporting the whale,” George said.
Chris Fischer, the group’s founder, responded: “Thanks for looking after our whales.”
He pointed the crew in the direction of where they had last seen the whale, and provided some good news: “We could see a calf feeding.”
The team from Georgia pushed further east, toward a flock of seagulls, moving slowly in their 18-foot Zodiac to avoid any collisions with a species known to spend as much as 20 minutes submerged before coming up for air.
Scanning the ocean with binoculars, they spotted a blow, and then a dark fluke emerge from the water. And then another smaller fluke.
From the boat, it was hard to make out much, and so they sent up a drone to get a better look.
It was not the injured calf, which was last seen on Jan. 15, when George piloted a boat off Fernandina Beach, Fla., and a marksman fired a dart filled with antibiotics into its back. They had hoped it would stave off infection and help the wounds heal.
This was Harmonia and her calf, which appeared to be playfully sliding on top of its mother and brushing its fluke along her broad mouth. The calf, which biologists had previously documented, appeared healthy. So they moved on.
Soon after, the plane radioed with coordinates for another mother-calf sighting, and the crew sped south, across the border and into waters off Florida. They searched for more than an hour, methodically circling the coordinates. They called the plane on a satellite phone, but the plane was no longer in the area.
As the sun began to set, and with no reports of another sighting, George turned toward shore.
A member of NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, he said it was frustrating that so much work was being done to protect the calving grounds, while not enough was being done to protect the whales off New England and in Canadian waters.
A study published last year in the journal Disease of Aquatic Organisms found that of 70 right whales found dead between 2003 and 2018, when a cause of death could be determined, nearly 60 percent had died as a result of entanglement in fishing gear, mostly lobster or crab buoy lines.
Most of those were presumed to have died from entanglements in lobster or crab buoy lines — those that rise from the seafloor to the surface — in the Gulf of Maine off New England and the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Canada.
Last spring, the Take Reduction Team had recommended that NOAA order the removal of nearly half the lobster lines off New England. NOAA had promised to act on that recommendation by last fall. But under pressure from the powerful lobster industry, the agency has repeatedly delayed its decision and agency officials now say they won’t issue new protections until at least this summer.
“That we would let a species potentially move toward extinction because of a luxury item, like lobster, is just really frustrating and sad,” George said as he neared port. “We can’t make more calves, but we could certainly stop killing whales."
The next day brought better news.
As NOAA’s plane took off from a small airfield on St. Simon’s Island, White said initial reports from sightings the day before had confirmed that three new calves had been identified.
That raised the number of calves born so far this season to nine — the highest total since 2016, when 14 were born. In 2009, by comparison, 39 calves were born, the most in one season over the past two decades.
“It’s nice to know that we have nine,” White said, “but it’s nowhere close to enough.”
Flying in a grid pattern at just 100 knots, the crew on the Twin Otter kept a close watch out the plane’s large, bubble-like observation windows, searching for any sign of movement or disturbance in the water below.
Of the 22 right whales that had migrated to the calving grounds, 14 were considered potential mothers. So White and her team were still holding out hope that another five calves could be born this season. Still, the calving grounds had far fewer whales than they once did.
“Recent years have been different than when I began doing aerial surveys in 2005,” White said. “We can fly for six or seven hours and not see a single whale," White said.
A few hours into the flight, a call came from George over the radio about another “alpha” sighting. The pilots banked hard and soon began circling a large right whale known as Salem, a male, swimming alone. It’s unclear why males leave their feeding grounds in the Northeast and come so far south, where there are no significant concentrations of copepods, their primary food. Shortly after, there was another report of a mother-calf pair not far away. The plane turned again, with hopes they might find Derecha and her calf.
But as they circled the whales, they determined it was another pair. White and the other observers were giddy as they described how the calf was flopping about its mom, a 28-year-old known as Calvin.
“It never gets old,” White said.
About five hours after taking off, the plane returned to St. Simon’s Island to refuel. The crew spent a few more hours searching the area that afternoon, but they didn’t come across any more whales.
Hope was beginning to fade for the injured calf. It was more likely than not, they said, that it had died and Derecha had left the calving grounds to return north.
The calf had still not been given a name.
For White, as depressing as its fate may be, it was unsurprising. The fault, she said, lies with humans.
“Reality struck,” she said.
David Abel’s reporting on right whales was made possible with the support of the Pulitzer Center, as part of its nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.