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Only about 450 Northern right whales are known to exist, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. File/New England Aquarium/AP

Rare right whales have given birth to at least six calves so far off the Southeast coast this winter.

The increase comes a year after a no-birth season left researchers worrying if the nearly extinct species could be saved.

The six calves aren't near enough to turn around the prospects for the mammoth whales. But they give researchers trying to save their future a degree of hope despite another disappointing year.

The sixth calf was spotted earlier this week below Saint Augustine by a Florida resident. A survey flight later confirmed it.

"While six is still a low number, any increase in the calf count is good news for the species," said Melanie White of Sea to Shore Alliance, which conducts most of the survey flights but did not confirm this sighting. 

A calving season that started slowly is now showing more calves week to week, she said. The calving season is considered to be from January through February.

"At this point in the season it’s looking like it will be another below-average year for calving," said Tom Pitchford, a wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Back in the 2000s, when the population was growing, we were seeing over two dozen calves a season," he said. "We’re a long way from the point where calving numbers have recovered."

That's calving numbers, not species numbers.

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 abut 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, 30 calves were spotted in a single year. But four years of calving decline hit rock bottom last year, when no new calves were born. This would be the fifth year without a significant turnaround.

The species is considered back on the edge of extinction, and its calving females and newborns travel seas that are heavily fished and trafficked by commercial and military ships.

The 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.

The plight of the animals is so dire that they have been cited by environmental groups and a coalition of coastal towns which filed a lawsuit in December to block President Donald Trump from opening up the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas exploration.

The groups are suing to stop seismic blast exploration using air guns as a violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has joined them in that lawsuit. The guns are considered to deafen and disorient sea mammals such as whales.

All the right whale sightings this winter have been in waters near the Florida-Georgia border, where most of the survey flights take place. Flights off South Carolina were discontinued in 2012 because of a loss of funding, although sightings have been reported since then by private boaters and others.

In January 2016, a young right whale swimming north was spotted just off the Stono Inlet at Folly Beach, the most recent confirmed local sighting.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.