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Endangered whale birth photos taken near Navy site

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Biologists conducting a survey for the U.S. military said Tuesday they photographed an endangered right whale giving birth near a proposed Navy training range offshore of Georgia and Florida.

The news caused waves of excitement among researchers and conservationists. Experts said it was only the second time right whales have been documented giving birth in the wild. And environmentalists opposed to the Navy's plans said the sighting bolsters their argument that submarine warfare training in the area would pose a threat to the rare species.

"We can not have undersea warfare training taking place in that area where mother whales are going to give birth to their calves," said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society, which sued the Navy in January over the training range.

Researchers say only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, and each whale killed by ship strikes, entanglement in fishing lines and other underwater gear is considered a large step toward extinction.

The right whales migrate each winter to the warm, shallow waters off southern Georgia and northern Florida to birth their calves. In nearby Atlantic waters, but farther out to sea, the Navy plans to build a $100 million range for training ships, submarines and aircraft.

Biologist William McLellan said his research team photographed the whale birth Saturday about 40 miles offshore from Jacksonville, Fla. His research team was conducting an aerial survey of marine species near the proposed training area.

McLellan, a research biologist for the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said Tuesday the scientists were tracking a female right whale when it dove underwater for about 10 minutes and then resurfaced along with a plume of blood.

"At first they thought it had been bitten by a shark," McLellan said Tuesday. "And then this little thing pops up off to the side. It turned out to be a baby calf."

The Navy said Tuesday the whale birth was at least 10 miles outside the boundary of its planned Undersea Warfare Training Range.

The range would be located over 500 square nautical miles, about 50 miles offshore and a short trip from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in south Georgia and Naval Station Mayport in north Florida.

"From what we would be doing on the range, there would be no significant impact to the right whales," said Jene Nissen, the range's program director and a retired Navy commander.

Scientists for the New England Aquarium in Boston were the first to photograph a right whale birth, also off the coast of northern Florida, in January 2005.

Monica Zani, a right whale researcher at the Boston aquarium, said the whale birth McLellan's team photographed occurred well outside the established calving grounds for right whales, about 20 miles off the coast. She said it's not clear whether a birth that far out was a fluke.

"It's a huge question mark," Zani said. "That's an area that hasn't been surveyed a lot."

Young of the Humane Society believes the sighting helps the cause the range's opponents.

In January, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit against the Navy in federal court on behalf of the Humane Society and other conservation groups. The lawsuit argues the Navy approved construction of the range without first completing studies to determine if it would pose threats to right whales and other rare species.

The Navy's studies on potential impacts to marine life are expected to be complete by 2014, the earliest the range would open.

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