A North Atlantic right whale swimming in and around ropes was spotted off Cumberland Island on Thursday, as first reported by The Current.
The nonprofit news organization posted video that was taken by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to YouTube. According to The Current, the right whale named Snow Cone was spotted with a new calf.
The Clearwater Aquarium mentioned that “Snow Cone was first observed with entanglement in Cape Cod Bay in March but wildlife partners have successfully shortened the ropes and continue to monitor the pair.
“Wildlife officials believe the ropes are short enough that the calf likely won’t become entangled if everything remains the same. Based on the length of the mother’s entanglement and general health assessments, officials believe her entanglement is not immediately life threatening,” The Current writes.
The second North Atlantic right whale calf of the season has been spotted off the coast of Georgia! Its mother, Snow Cone was first observed with entanglement in Cape Cod Bay in March but wildlife partners have successfully shortened the ropes and continue to monitor the pair. https://t.co/tr7Q7IQUM5— Clearwater Aquarium (@CMAquarium) December 4, 2021
The baby whale appeared healthy and uninjured when an aerial survey team spotted it, said Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
It was the second newborn right whale confirmed in the Atlantic waters of the Southeastern U.S. during the species’ calving season that typically runs from December through March.
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with scientists estimating that fewer than 350 survive. Adult females migrate to warmer waters off Georgia and Florida each winter to give birth. George said he’s only aware of one other confirmed report, from January 2011, of an entangled right whale being seen with a newborn — and that one ultimately managed to free itself.
The female whale spotted last week, identified by the unique markings on its head, has been dragging fishing rope at least since March. That’s when it was first reported entangled in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Massachusetts. Wildlife experts managed to shorten the rope before the whale headed south, but weren’t able to free it.
“We haven’t seen a chronically entangled whale come down here from up north and have a calf,” George said, adding: “It’s amazing. But on the other hand, it could ultimately be a death sentence for her.”
That’s because the mother whale may struggle both to nurse her calf and still have the energy needed to keep dragging the fishing line while also trying to recover from potential injuries to its mouth, George said. Female right whales typically gorge themselves in the waters where they feed and mate off New England and Canada before heading south to give birth. They won’t eat again until they return — a round trip that can take three months or longer.
Trained responders in a boat approached the mother whale and calf on Thursday. After consulting with other experts, George said, the response team concluded any attempt to remove or further shorten the fishing rope would pose too great a risk to both the whales and the boat crew.
Spotters who scan the waters daily for whales and their babies during the calving season plan to keep an eye out for the pair.
“My concern is she’s still got two pieces of rope, about 20 feet, coming out from the left side of her mouth,” Georgia said. “If those two pieces of rope ended up getting knotted around each other and there’s a loop, you could image that calf could end up becoming entangled.”
Scientists and advocates with the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said in October they suspect the marine mammals lost nearly 10% of their population last year, with their overall number falling to an estimated 336.
Right whales were decimated during the commercial whaling era, when they were hunted for their oil. Now scientists say entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with ships are killing right whales faster than they can reproduce.