North Atlantic right whale researchers were thrilled to find out a fourth calf had been spotted this year.
But the excitement disappeared after learning the newborn, estimated to be only days old, has been injured, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The American agency said in a statement Thursday the injuries "were consistent with the propeller of a vessel."
"The injuries are concerning because of the severity and location of the wounds," the agency said. "One of the injuries appears to include damage to the calf's mouth which could hamper its ability to nurse and feed."
The whale was spotted Wednesday with its mother, Derecha, about eight nautical miles off the Georgia coast. It's the 27-year-old mother's fourth calf. She last gave birth 10 years ago.
The North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species, with about 400 left in the world and fewer than 100 female adults, according to scientists at the New England Aquarium.
"It's pretty devastating," said Katie Graham, an assistant scientist at the aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
"Every birth is really exciting for us and to see this animal injured so early in its life is pretty devastating."
She said the wounds could be life-threatening.
"Potentially it could be lethal," Graham said. "Depending on how severe the strike is and where on the body and things like that, it could be really detrimental to its health long term or potentially cause mortality."
Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center, said 12 right whales died last year, while seven calves were spotted off the southern U.S. coast in 2019. No calves were reported in the previous year.
NOAA is urging anyone with information about the possible strike to come forward.
Teams from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research were dispatched Thursday morning to locate the pair and assess the calf's condition, the agency said.