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Baby boom at sea

Scientists feared the right whale was headed for extinction. But an increase in births provides new hope.

Last year the future looked bleak for the endangered right whale. With only 300 left in the world, the whales made their annual migration to Florida and produced only one calf before returning north in mid-March.

This year the 50-ton behemoths are swimming home with a lot more to show for their Florida trip. Researchers found the whales had 26 calves, the most since biologists began documenting the whales' visits in the 1980s.

"We had a great season," said Cyndi Taylor Thomas of the St. Petersburg-based Florida Marine Research Institute.

The news is encouraging, say whale researchers and advocates. But they disagree about whether this signals a brighter future for the most endangered large whale species in the world.

Thousands of right whales once populated the ocean, but whaling to harvest their oil for lamp fuel nearly wiped them out. Whalers gave Eubalaena glacialis its common name: They were the "right" whale to hunt because they move slowly, migrate near shore and stay afloat after death.

Although they have been protected from whaling since 1935, so few right whales remain that the New England Aquarium has cataloged them all like death row convicts in a mug book.

These days, when right whales die, it's usually because they were hit by a ship _ like manatees, they are hard to spot from the water _ or because they became tangled in fishing gear that tightens as they grow, eventually slicing into their flesh.

Federal and state officials have worked hard to set up a warning system for ships when the whales move through busy shipping areas. And they are working on new regulations that will change fishing gear to make it easier for the whales to break free if they are entangled.

"Gear is safer than it used to be, but there are still entanglements," said George Liles, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Of the 300 or so right whales that remain, about 70 are breeding females. Every December, pregnant right whales migrate south to give birth to calves in the warmer water off the Florida coast, from Jacksonville to Fort Pierce.

They can range as far out as 40 miles from shore, or come close enough to be seen from the beach.

Over the past few years the birth rate dropped considerably from the high of 22 in 1996. The following year there were 18 calves. In 1998 only five calves were born. In 1999, there were only four. Then came last year's sole birth.

Scientists fretted that the whales' birth rate had dropped because they weren't getting enough food, or because of some mysterious disease, or perhaps pollution in the water. Or worst of all, it could be a sign of inbreeding among the dwindling population.

Whatever the cause, with the death rate soaring and the birth rate dropping, scientists concluded that the species was doomed. But as a result of this year's baby boom, the doomsday scenarios are on hold. "There were so many born this year that it's evidence that whatever it was, it was not any of those grim things," Liles said.

"It's very heartening," agreed Jared Blumenthal of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has advocated greater protection for the whales.

Thomas said this might just be a natural cycle among the whales, not a sign of some miraculous rebirth of the species.

"They're still getting killed by ships and still getting entangled in fishing gear," she said. "And my feeling is that two years from now we're going to be back to just five or six calves."

During the whales' visit south one calf was found dead. The carcass was too decomposed to determine what killed it, Thomas said.

Right whales

Named by whalers because they were the "right" whale to hunt

Protected from whaling since 1935

Only 300 exist, 70 of them breeding females

Most are found from Nova Scotia to New England

Pregnant females swim south to Florida in December to give birth

Deaths are often due to ship collisions or entanglement in fishing gear