Endangered Whale Gives Birth While Entangled in Rope off Georgia Coast

The whale’s newborn calf appears to be uninjured and in good health. 

Scientists encountered a rare phenomenon when they spotted a whale entangled in fishing rope swimming with its newborn calf off the coast of Georgia. The sighting confirmed that the endangered North Atlantic right whale gave birth while entangled in the rope.

The whale, nicknamed Snow Cone, was first spotted with rope in its mouth in March 2021 in Cape Cod Bay. Boat teams in Massachusetts and Canada were able to remove more than 100 yards of rope from the whale, leaving behind two 20-foot segments of rope wrapped around her baleen (fibrous feeding system) and hanging out of the left side of her mouth. The remainder of the rope could not be extracted without posting a serious threat to both the whale and boat crew.

right whale
Georgia DNR / Taken under NOAA permit 20556

Despite her entanglement, Snow Cone successfully migrated south for calving season, and on Dec. 2, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aerial survey team spotted the new mother-calf pair about 10 nautical miles off Cumberland Island, Georgia. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources responded to the call, sending a boat to check on the mother and child.

Clay George, a senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told Southern Living that though Snow Cone has a large wound on her head and remains entangled, she appears to be in fair condition and is not in immediate danger.

The new calf also appears to be unharmed and healthy. It has been seen swimming in and around the ropes, but experts say it's unlikely to become entangled due to the length of the rope. Snow Cone's calf is the first document newborn right whale of the 2021 season, which runs from November through April.

But the mother and calf aren't entirely out of harm's way. George says the rope could cause problems down the road, including increased risk for infection and injury as the whale makes the journey back north.

"Calving is energetically demanding for right whales," he told Southern Living. "They migrate south 1,000 miles from New England to Georgia and Florida, nurse their newborn calves for around two months, and migrate 1,000 miles back to New England … and they don't eat that entire time. Instead, the mom and calf live off of the energy stored in the mom's blubber. We are concerned that the mom's body condition could worsen as the energetic demands of lactation and migration continue in the coming months."

Snow Cone's health is especially important because North Atlantic right whales are considered critically endangered. Fewer than 350 remain in the wild.

George says fishing rope entanglements are extremely common. Around 80% of right whales have scars from entanglement, and 60% have been entangled more than once. Fishing rope, he says, is now the leading cause of right whale death and injury.

"An average of 30 right whales are dying per year, and over half of those are likely dying from entanglements," he said. "However, this is the first time that a chronically entangled whale has ever been known to successfully birth a calf. The rarity of the event, coupled with how frequently whales become entangled, suggests that most entangled females are either unable to get pregnant or they abort before reaching term. So, this event is definitely surprising."

George says "only time will tell" if Snow Cone is able to shed the remaining rope on her own and finally swim free.

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