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During the 1980s the number of babies born annually was around 12. The total twice fell sharply in the 1990s until just a single calf appeared in 2000. Since then, the average has risen to more than 20 calves a year. Yet this remains 30 percent below the whales' potential rate of reproduction. Why? If scientists are to guide the species' salvation, they need more data and more answers. Fast.

One August morning in 2006, when the sea was a sheet of dimpled satin shot through with silver threads, I joined Scott Kraus, the New England Aquarium's vice president of research, and Rosalind Rolland, a veterinarian and senior scientist with the aquarium, on an unlikely quest in the Bay of Fundy. When leviathans rose in the distance through the sea's shimmering skin, Kraus steered the boat downwind of where they had briefly surfaced, handed me a data sheet to log our movements, and zigzagged into the faint breeze. Rolland moved onto the bow. Beside her was Fargo, the world's premier whale-poop-sniffing dog.

Fargo began to pace from starboard to port, nostrils flaring. Rolland focused on the rottweiler's tail. If it began to move, it would mean he had picked up a scent—and he could do that a nautical mile away. Twitch … Twitch … Wag, wag. "Starboard," Rolland called to Kraus. "A little more. Nope, too far. Turn to port. OK, he's back on it." A quarter of an hour ran by like the bay's currents. All I saw were clumps of seaweed. Suddenly, the dog sat and turned to fix Rolland with a look. We stopped, and out of the vast ocean horizon came a single chunk of digested whale chow, bobbing along mostly submerged, ready to sink from view or dissolve altogether within minutes.

Kraus grabbed the dip net and scooped up the fragrant blob. You'd have thought he was landing a fabulous fish. "At first, people are incredulous. Then come the inevitable jokes. But this," said the man who has led North Atlantic right whale research for three decades, "is actually some of the best science we've done."

With today's technology, DNA from sloughed-off intestinal cells in a dung sample can identify the individual that produced it. Residues of hormones tell Rolland about the whale's general condition, its reproductive state—mature? pregnant? lactating?—levels of stress, and presence of parasites.

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