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SAVANNAH, Ga. – Four years after wildlife experts carefully cut away fishing line wrapped tight around its midsection, an endangered right whale that still bears a scar from the encounter returned to waters off the Georgia coast this month along with something to celebrate — a newborn calf by its side.
The new mom, known to its rescuers as Equator for the scar circling her belly, is one of three right whales spotted with babies this month off the Atlantic coast years after the adults had been freed from entanglement by humans. Experts said they rarely saw rescued whales move on to motherhood until a few years ago. They called the January sightings a success story for a critically endangered species believed to number 400 or fewer.
"Just until recently it was very rare. We hardly ever saw it," said Jamison Smith, who heads the federal whale disentanglement program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's really exciting to see that we have three animals in one season."
Right whales migrate to the warm waters off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to give birth each year from mid-November through March. Conservationists conduct daily flights over the water during the calving season to photograph and report any mother-and-newborn pairs.
Two of the formerly ensnared whales were spotted off the 100-mile Georgia coast, said Clay George, who heads the right whale monitoring program for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Equator and her calf were photographed Jan. 13 in waters near Little St. Simons Island. In December 2008, the same whale had shown up in Georgia waters trailing 300 yards of fishing line tangled in a knotted loop that was cutting into her midsection. A rescue team in a boat managed to get close enough to cut two of the three strands the whale was dragging. The last strand later fell off.
"At the time we had no idea if it was a male or female," George said. "The whole time we've been doing disentanglements for the last six or seven years, we've been hoping a couple of these might survive and end up producing calves."
A second whale, known as Arpeggio, was seen with its calf Jan. 14 near Jekyll Island and confirmed to have been saved from entanglement in 1999 in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Two days earlier, on Jan. 12, another new-mom right whale, nicknamed Wart, was photographed off Cape Cod, Mass., and later confirmed to have been ensnared and rescued in May 2010.
Freeing right whales caught up in fishing gear isn't easy. It requires humans to get in close to the giant animals, which can exceed 50 feet in length, that are likely in pain and anxious. Some rescues are called off because they're deemed too risky. And some researchers suspect disentanglement procedures can be so stressful that they inhibit a rescued whale's ability to reproduce later.
According to NOAA, 40 whales of various species — including four right whales — were reported entangled in fishing gear last year off the Atlantic coast of North America. Rescue crews were dispatched in 18 of those cases, including two for the right whales.
Smith from NOAA said more rescued whales may be giving birth now because of improvements made in the past five years or so.
Wildlife agencies at the state level now have their own teams trained to free whales from entanglement, where once all they could do was attach tracking buoys to the animals and wait for national specialists to fly in a day or two later, Smith said.
And those teams are constantly adopting new tools that help them save whales from a distance. Wart, the right whale seen with her calf off Cape Cod, was freed by using a crossbow to fire a blade that cut lines wrapped over the whale's head. Smith said other ensnared whales have been treated with sedatives and antibiotics delivered by a foot-long needle fired from a gun.
"This is, I think, a banner year for success of previous disentanglements," Smith said.