updated 12/15/2004 2:57:46 PM ET 2004-12-15T19:57:46

Two endangered Atlantic right whales have been spotted tangled in lines off the coast of the Carolinas, and the crews of ships in the area have been asked to look for them.

If the rare whales are found and rescuers can attach radio transmitters, scientists will work to try to disentangle them, said David Morin, whale research assistant director for the Center for Coastal Studies based in Provincetown, Mass.

However, since right whales can cover more than 100 miles a day, “it’s worse than trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Morin said.

Ship crews in the area have been alerted to watch for the whales, believed to be migrating south. Survey flights have been grounded by wind blowing at more than 30 mph, but the weather is expected to ease late Wednesday, said Bob Bright, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston.

Waiting for a sighting
One whale was spotted Dec. 6 about 15 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. It had a line “weaving through its mouth and around its tail” and trailing more than 100 feet behind with an orange buoy, Morin said.

“It will probably die if we can’t release it,” said Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On Thursday, a fisherman on a pier at Cape Hatteras reported seeing another whale with lines wrapped around its mouth, blowholes and flipper.

The whales have not been seen again since the initial reports.

“We don’t know where they are. The weather’s lousy. We really have to wait until somebody gets a sighting,” said Charles Mayo, whale rescue director for the Center for Coastal Studies.

Morin discounted speculation that the latest sighting is of a whale dubbed Kingfisher that was the subject of an unsuccessful rescue attempt last April.

“Entanglement is so serious, quite a few experts don’t think he survived,” he said.

Atlantic right whales were hunted almost to extinction by the early 1900s and only an estimated 350 survive. Scientists say about 60 percent of right whales become entangled in fishing lines.

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