CHARLESTON, S.C. - Scientists have received reports of two rare Atlantic right whales, their heads and fins entangled in lines, off the North Carolina coast. The whales are believed to be migrating south toward Florida.
One whale was spotted by a ship Dec. 6 about 15 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
The whale had a line "weaving through its mouth and around its tail" and trailing more than 100 feet behind with an orange buoy, said David Morin, whale research assistant director for the Center for Coastal Studies based in Massachusetts.
"It will probably die if we can't release it," said Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A fisherman on a pier at Cape Hatteras spotted a whale Thursday with lines wrapped around its mouth, blowholes and flipper. That whale is thought to be a 4-year-old known to have been entangled since last April, Morin said. She said officials are unsure of the first whale's identity.
Since whales can cover more than 100 miles a day "it's worse than trying to find a needle in a haystack," Morin said.
Ships have been alerted and there will be survey flights to try to locate the whales. Those flights have been hampered in recent days because of rough seas and winds of more than 30 mph.
Last spring, researchers chased an entangled whale named Kingfisher off the Carolinas coast to try to free it. But the weather proved too rough and the whale swam off.
It's possible one of the two whales could be Kingfisher.
"Is it a possibility it's Kingfisher? Yes. Do I think it is? No," Morin said. "Entanglement is so serious, quite a few experts don't think he survived."
If the whales are located and rescuers can attach radio transmitters, scientists will work to try to disentangle them, Morin said.
There are only an estimated 350 Atlantic right whales still alive after they were hunted almost to extinction by the early 1900s. Scientists say an estimated 60 percent of right whales become entangled in fishing lines.