The Tide - notes in the ebb and flow of news

An endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear was spotted about 10 miles off Cumberland Island with a new calf on Thursday.

An aerial survey team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spotted the whale, nicknamed Snow Cone, and her calf. A team from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources responded by boat, Georgia DNR spokesman Rick Lavender reported.

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Snow Cone was first seen entangled in gear on March 10 in Cape Cod Bay. Rescuers attempted to disentangle her several times in the Northeast and Canada. They succeeded in shortening the rope trailing behind her. Remaining on her is a configuration of two ropes exiting the mouth and rope wrapped around a segment of baleen plates in the right side of her mouth.

Before her appearance off Cumberland, Snow Cone was last seen on November 6 in southern New England. North Atlantic right whales migrate from their summer feeding grounds off New England and Canada to give birth off Georgia and Florida in the winter. Snow Cone’s calf is the second right whale calf documented this season. The first was seen off South Carolina in November.

North Atlantic right whale #3560 and calf off Cumberland Island Dec. 2, 2021. Credit: Florida FWC_Taken under NOAA permit 20556

The calf is not entangled, but has been observed swimming in/through/around the ropes. 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. They intend to continue monitoring the situation.

Right whales are highly endangered with fewer than 350 remaining. Once hunted to near extinction for their oil, entanglements and ship strikes now pose the gravest dangers to these bus-sized baleen whales.

North Atlantic right whale #3560 and calf off Cumberland Island Dec. 2 Credit: Florida FWC_Taken under NOAA permit 20556

Snow Cone is officially number 3560 in the North Atlantic right whale catalog. As are many of the whales, she’s nicknamed based on her markings, rough patches that form unique white patterns on their black skin. In her case, it’s the marking near her blow holes that reminded observers of the frozen treat.

She’s 16 years old an previously gave birth in the 2019/2020 calving season. She then made headlines with the unusual behavior of swimming south with her calf into the Gulf of Mexico. That 2020 calf, a male, was found dead off New Jersey in June 2020. The male calf had evidence of at least two separate vessel collisions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. Evaluation of the wounds suggests they occurred shortly before the animal died and were likely the cause of death.

Right whale rules: Federal law requires vessels, paddle boarders and aircraft, including unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to stay at least 500 yards (five football fields) away from right whales. These restrictions are in place to reduce the risk of harassment or collisions between right whales and boats. Vessels 65 feet and longer are legally required to slow to speeds of 10 knots or less in Seasonal Management Areas along the East Coast. This includes the calving and nursery area.

Right whales often swim and rest just below the surface and can be invisible to approaching vessels. It’s important for vessel operators to follow applicable speed rules, and for boaters to slow down whenever possible.

U.S. speed restrictions are in place for certain vessels along the mid-Atlantic November 1–April 30 and in the southeast U.S. calving area November 15–April 15.

View more information on seasonal vessel speed restrictions.

The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...