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Boat propeller gravely injures endangered whale calf, NOAA says

A whale calf suffering propeller wounds on the head, mouth and lip will likely die, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday. 

The calf, an endangered North Atlantic right whale, was likely hurt in a vessel strike, officials said. The injuries could impact the calf's ability to nurse from its mother successfully. 

Biologists with Georgia's Department of Natural Resources said the calf's wounds don't appear to be fresh. Images show that the injuries are covered in cyamids, which are small crustaceans.

The injured North Atlantic right whale calf seen with injuries on the head, mouth, and left lip, consistent with vessel strike, on Jan. 3, 2024. Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina / NOAA

While the calf's exact age is not known, officials believe the whale was born in late November. North Atlantic right whales can live to be 70.

The mom and calf were last seen before the injury on Dec. 9, off Amelia Island, Florida. By the time the NOAA was notified on Jan. 6, the mom and wounded calf were off Edisto, South Carolina. 

Officials used videos shared on social media to identify the mom as Juno, a whale first sighted in 1986 in the southeastern U.S., according to the NOAA. Officials don't know if Juno is also injured, but they said mother-calf pairs are more likely to be hit by boats because they are difficult to see and spend most of their time close to the water's surface.

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading causes of death among North Atlantic right whales, according to the NOAA. The species has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970, and there are approximately 360 remaining North Atlantic right whales.

North Atlantic right whale
The North Atlantic right whale is listed as endangered. NOAA Fisheries

"The population continues to decline at an unsustainable rate, due to human impacts," according to the NOAA. "The number of new calves born in recent years has been below average."

More than a dozen right whales have been struck by vessels in U.S. waters since 2008, according to the New England Aquarium, which helped identify the mother-calf pair. 

"This devastating case brings a heightened sense of urgency to address the significant challenges North Atlantic right whales are facing," said Amy Knowlton, senior scientist at the aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. "It is crucial to act now to implement enhanced regulations to protect this critically endangered species along the U.S. East Coast."

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