SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — On Thursday, scientists off the coast of Georgia have spotted an endangered North Atlantic right whale that gave birth while entangled in fishing rope.
Wildlife officials from Georgia and Florida photographed the seemingly healthy and uninjured newborn calf swimming alongside its mother as the adult whale dragged a length of rope snared in its mouth.
In March, Cape Cod Bay, a large bay of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, first reported seeing the mother, identified by the unique markings on her head, entangled in fishing rope. Wildlife experts managed to shorten the rope before she headed south, but they couldn’t free her.
“We haven’t seen a chronically entangled whale come down here from up north and have a calf,” said Biologist Clay George of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, adding: “It’s amazing. But on the other hand, it could ultimately be a death sentence for her.”
He goes on to explain that it’s because the mother may struggle to nurse her calf and still have the energy needed to keep dragging the fishing line, all while trying to recover from potential injuries to her mouth.
This was the second newborn right whale calf to be confirmed in the Atlantic waters of the Southeastern U.S. during their calving season, which runs from December through March.
George said that the mother and calf haven’t reappeared since they were spotted Thursday.
The North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered. Scientists estimate that fewer than 350 survive. Adult females migrate to warmer waters near Georgia and Florida each winter to give birth.
Female right whales typically gorge themselves in the waters where they both feed and mate off of the coasts of New England and Canada before they head south to give birth. They won’t eat again until they return round trip, which can take at least three months.
Trained responders approached the mother and her calf on Thursday in an attempt to remove or further shorten the fishing rope. However, after consulting with other experts, it was deemed too risky.
“My concern is she’s still got two pieces of rope, about 20 feet, coming out from the left side of her mouth,” Georgia said. “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.”
Spotters who scan the waters every day for whales and their babies during the calving season plan to keep an eye out for the pair.
George says he’s aware of only one other instance of an entangled right whale giving birth from January 2011, and they managed to free themselves.
In October, scientists and advocates with the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said they suspect the marine mammals lost nearly 10% of their population last year.
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 kill them faster than they can reproduce.