A female North Atlantic right whale who has been entangled in fishing gear for months has given birth to a healthy calf, but scientists fear for the small family’s welfare in the long term.
The mother whale, nicknamed Snow Cone, was first seen dragging fishing rope behind her in Massachusett’s Plymouth Bay in March, according to a Friday release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before she fled the bay, rescuers managed to remove some of the rope, but not all.
More attempts were made to free her in May and June, but Snow Cone resisted their efforts and was “evasive and strong,” Mackie Greene of the New Brunswick-based Campobello Whale Rescue team told CBC News.
Snow Cone was actually pregnant at the time. But earlier this month, scientists spotted Snow Cone ― still dragging thick, heavy rope from her mouth ― with a newborn calf off the coast of Georgia.
NOAA scientists were both “surprised and concerned” that Snow Cone had managed to give birth while entangled, the agency’s statement said.
Scientists are worried that while the calf seems healthy, not injured, and isn’t caught in the rope yet, the baby might also get trapped.
“My concern is [Snow Cone’s] still got two pieces of rope, about 20 feet, coming out from the left side of her mouth,” Clay George, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist told the Associated Press. “If those two pieces of rope ended up getting knotted around each other and there’s a loop, you could imagine that calf could end up becoming entangled.”
Even if that doesn’t happen, the stress of the situation still poses a major threat to both the calf and Snow Cone’s health.
“Entanglement alone is a costly energetic drain and so is nursing a calf,” Barb Zoodsma, a large whale recovery coordinator at NOAA, said in the release. “The severity of her mouth and head injuries are also disconcerting. For these reasons, Snow Cone may be facing her biggest challenge yet in the upcoming months.”
She noted, however that Snow Cone’s perseverance ― her previous calf was killed in a boat collision last year ― shows that the mother whale “clearly” has “game.”
In the meantime, scientists say that, while her newborn is close by, it’s too risky to get close to Snow Cone to try again to disentangle her.
North Atlantic right whales can be found critically endangeredBoth fishing gear entanglements as well as collisions between ships and whales are serious threats to this species. According to NOAA, there are fewer than 350 of the whales left, and they’re currently dying out faster than they can reproduce.