ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The biologists had been in the plane for hours, flying back and forth over the calm ocean. They had seen dolphins, leatherback turtles, a flock of water birds called gannets and even a basking shark — but not what they were looking for.
Then Millie Brower, who was peering with intense concentration through a bubblelike window fitted into the plane’s fuselage, announced “nine o’clock, about a mile off.” The plane made a stomach-churning lurch as the pilots banked left and began to circle. And there, below, were a right whale mother and her new calf, barely breaking the surface, lolling in the swells.
The researchers, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Georgia Wildlife Trust, are part of an intense effort to monitor North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered, and closely watched, species on earth. As a database check eventually disclosed, the whale was Diablo, who was born in these waters eight years ago. Her calf — at a guess 2 weeks old and a bouncing 12 feet and 2 tons — was the 38th born this year, a record that would be surpassed just weeks later, with a report from NOAA on the birth of a 39th calf. The previous record was 31, set in 2001.
“It’s a bumper year for calves,” Richard Merrick, an oceanographer for NOAA’s fisheries service, said in an interview. “That’s a good sign.”