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Miracle mom and calf, North American right whales, spotted off Georgia’s coast

Snow Cone dragging a rope while swimming with her calf, Dec. 2 off Cumberland Island. (Photo by Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA Permit #20556, via fisheries.noaa.gov.)

By David Pendered

Snow Cone the right whale has been spotted with her calf off the coast of Cumberland Island, still entangled in the commercial fishing gear she’s dragged all the way from Massachusetts.

New England rescuers in March removed almost 300 feet of heavy rope that started from a piece snagged in her mouth. A portion of the tackle still remains, though, and was seen trailing from of mouth when she was spotted off Georgia’s coast.

Snow Cone was probably pregnant when she became entangled and had part of the rope removed, scientists report. She pulled the remaining length about 1,300 miles, all the way to the calving grounds of the endangered species, off the coasts of Georgia and north Florida.

Snow Cone and her baby were spotted on Dec. 2 by an aerial team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, according to a Dec. 10 report by NOAA Fisheries. The estimated age of the infant was not provided.

Despite the entanglement, Mother and baby appeared healthy. Scientists are monitoring the pair and have decided not to try to remove any more of the rope from Snow Cone, as such an attempt could endanger the infant, according to the report.

This is because Infant right whales swim very close to their mother. Rescue workers who attempted to get a boat close enough to Snow Cone to try to extract more line risk striking the infant, according to the report.

Snow Cone lost her first-born calf last year to a vessel strike after the little male was run over by boats on two separate occasions. The first strike didn’t kill him and he was struck again, this time fatally. The carcass was found floating off the coast of New Jersey in June 2020. The necropsy found chops from a propeller on his chest and head, and wounds from a skeg or rudder on the back. The infant survived this vessel strike, but the injuries “may have significantly impaired the whale,” according to NOAA’s report. The second strike caused even more prop and skeg wounds and was the likely cause of death.

Three months earlier, in March 2020, the infant and his mom were celebrities in the Gulf of Mexico. The waters aren’t known for North American right whales and Snow Cone and her unnamed son were spotted by a captain off the coast of Tampa, according to the Tampa Bay Times. As word got out, NOAA reported, “the pair were frequently approached and pursued by boats with curious onlookers.”

The mother and the living infant were spotted for the last time off Cape Lookout, N.C. The next sighting was the dead animal, in June 2020. Snow Cone wasn’t seen. The infant’s death added to the trend of North American right whales dying at a rate faster than the species’ birth rate.

Leading causes of death for North American right whales include entanglement in fishing gear, sometimes tied to lobster pots off New England’s coast, and by vessel strikes. The governments of the United States and Canada have enacted regulations that seek to balance the economies of fisheries and cargo ships with the preservation of the endangered species. Conservation groups including Oceana contend the regulations are insufficient to protect the whales.

The creatures are vulnerable to vessels because the mammals are hard to spot, lying low and appearing the same color as the seawater. The whales swim slowly with their mouths open while filter-feeding on tiny crustaceans, making it easy for them to get entangled in commercial fishing gear.

Snow Cone, 17, is one of about 70 known breeding females remaining among the endangered North American right whales. Fewer than 350 of the creatures are known to survive.

Barb Zoodsma struck a note of cautious optimism in evaluating the chances facing mother and infant. Zoodsma serves as large whale recovery coordinator at NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office:

“Clearly, Snow Cone has game. She persevered through her first calf being struck twice, and eventually killed while at her side,” Zoodsma said. “Less than a year later she was pregnant again and became entangled. On Dec. 2, 2021, Snow Cone was observed with a new calf. Still, her and her calf’s current situation is very concerning.”

The late Sen. Johnny Isakson was an advocate of North American right whales. One of the last acts in the Senate by Isakson, a major figure in Georgia’s Republican Party, was to co-sponsor legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker to allocate $50 million, over 10 years, to help conserve the species. The creature is Georgia’s state marine mammal, a designation Isakson supported in 1985 when he was state House minority leader.

Note to readers: Video of Snow Cone and her infant is posted on the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s Facebook page. Click here and scroll to the Dec. 3 entry.

 

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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