Whale entangled in fishing net spotted with calf off Cape Cod

A critically endangered North Atlantic right whale that has been entangled in fishing rope for months has been spotted off the coast of Massachusetts, according to the Center for Coastal Studies. [Photo credit: Center for Coastal Studies]

An endangered North Atlantic right whale that has been entangled in rope for months was spotted on April 23 and 24 off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts after swimming over 1,000 miles from Florida with its baby.

Scientists confirmed late last year that the whale had given birth to a calf while entangled in a fishing net – a rare occurrence, they said. The baby whale appeared healthy and uninjured when an aerial survey team spotted it in December alongside its ensnared mother near Cumberland Island, Georgia, according to 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.

Experts have determined they cannot safely free the whaler, which whale spotters have named Snow Cone, from the net.

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. 

The mother has been identified by the unique markings on her head.  She has been dragging fishing rope at least since March 2021, according to observers. That’s when she was first reported entangled along Cape Cod. Wildlife experts managed to shorten the rope before the whale headed south, but weren’t able to free it.

There was concern that the mother whale might 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. External wounds caused by the rope can also become infected and that could result in sepsis, wildlife officials 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.

According to the Center for Coastal Studies, this is Snow Cone's second calf. The 17‐year‐old whale lost her first calf in 2020 after it was struck by a ship, the center said. The resilient whale has been called a "survivor," and scientists were hopeful after her recent sighting.

"She didn’t look awful, but she is noticeably skinnier. She hadn’t been sighted since being in the southeast about nine weeks ago, and we were wondering if she’d come to Cape Cod Bay or if she would pass us by or if we wouldn’t see her again, so it’s a relief that she’s still alive and that her calf looks good," said one of the center's observers, Ryan Schosberg.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.