The injured newborn right whale first spotted last week is cut through the lip, and it doesn't look good.
Biologists who studied photos taken Friday of the calf consider it in poor condition, said Allison Garrett, a NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman. It apparently was struck by a boat propeller.
The lip wounds might not be repairable and could keep it from feeding, Garrett said. Air and water crews from multiple agencies continue to try to track the calf and its mother, possibly to administer antibiotics by air gun.
The pair were spotted off Georgia and are still thought to be in those waters.
Their plight has became a concern of both searchers and the public.
Among the agencies searching are the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research, SeaWorld and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The mom and calf were first spotted Thursday about 9 miles off Georgia. Biologists estimated then that the calf was only days old and the wounds hours old. Air and sea searchers came across them again later Friday.
Saving the calf, if it can be done, is considered critical because the mammoth whales are on the edge of extinction, with so few females remaining that some environmentalists believe the species might already be doomed. The calf was the fourth newborn spotted this year.
Treating the wound of a newborn calf with her protective mother alongside would be difficult.
The Northern right whale is a 60-foot-long, 40-ton mammal with fins as big as boats. Plentiful before being hunted nearly to extinction by whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries, right whales are now the rarest of the large whales, with only about 450 known to be alive, including only about 100 mature females.
Their recovery appeared to have turned a corner in recent years; a decade ago, more than 30 calves were spotted in a single year. But four years of calving decline hit rock bottom in 2017-18 when no new calves were born. A few calves were born in 2018-19, giving researchers a little hope after five years without much calving.
The calving females and newborns travel seas that are heavily fished and trafficked by commercial and military ships.
Right whales migrate seasonally between rich feeding waters off New England and warmer calving waters from South Carolina to Florida. Pregnant females make the 1,000-mile expedition so close to the coast that a mother and newborn calf pair was spotted in 2005 in the breakers off Pawleys Island near Georgetown.
Recent research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration came away with staggering findings that nearly all known deaths of females came from fishing line entanglements or ship strikes. None occurred off South Carolina.
Garrett asked people on the South Carolina coast to keep an eye out for the mom and calf pair or any right whale because survey flights aren't regularly made above Georgia. The whales can be identified by their size, the lack of a dorsal fin and a distinctive two-plume breathing spray.
Don't approach the whale or whales to determine whether there's an injured calf, which would be against federal law. Report sightings to 1-877-942-5343.