Snow Cone and calf

Snow Cone’s triumph and tragedy

What one right whale’s story can teach us about a species

There have been eight new North Atlantic right whale calves born so far this calving season. In the grand scheme of things, this may seem like a small number, but for right whales, it's huge. With only 336 of these whales left in our oceans, every new calf born is a sign of hope and encouragement for the species’ future. 

For these critically-endangered gentle giants, eight new calves is a step in the right direction. Ideally, we’ll get close to a total of 10-15 calves this year, but we are still far from where we need to be to save this species. Right now, scientists estimate two dozen right whale calves need to be born each calving season if the population is to stabilize and grow.

One right whale mother, Snow Cone, has found herself in the spotlight--and not just because of the welcome news of her calf. When pictures of Snow Cone and her baby surfaced in November, the joyful image of the baby frolickign with its mother were marred by an ugly reminder of the risks facing the species the pictures showed this newborn playing with the dangerous, strong plastic fishing rope tangled in Snow Cone’s mouth. 

Those following right whales over the past few years may have heard of Snow Cone, and for good reason. The story of this young right whale mother is emblematic of the plight of the entire species. 

This is her story: In December 2019, Snow Cone gave birth to her first calf, a male, off the coast of northeastern Florida. Snow Cone and her new calf traveled into the Gulf of Mexico where  boats regularly followed them at a dangerously close distance. Tragically, at only 6-months, Snow Cone’s calf was found dead off the coast of New Jersey, killed by two seperate boat strikes. 

Snow Cone, a once excited new mother, was left grieving and alone. Still, she persisted. Less than one year later, Snow Cone was pregnant with her second calf. 

At some point in her pregnancy, Snow Cone endured one of the most dangerous situations facing her species: She was entangled in fishing gear. 

When fishing gear entangles right whales, the ropes can wrap around their flippers, head, and mouth and cut deeply into their flesh or even amputate their fins. The ropes can hinder their ability to feed and swim properly, leading to a slow death. If they do free themselves, they are sometimes too exhausted to reproduce. 

Even though Snow Cone remained entangled in the ropes, she gave birth to a new, healthy calf in late 2021. Although Snow Cone now swims happily alongside her calf, and expends vital energy nursing, the ropes could threaten her ability to properly feed and care for her new baby. Freeing Snow Cone from the ropes could endanger her life. Sadly, as long as she remains in this situation, the future health of her and her calf remains uncertain. Right now, all we can do is hope for the best for Snow Cone and her second calf.

Although we can’t change Snow Cone’s situation right now, we can change the conditions that led to it. We need to do everything we can to ensure the future of this species, and that starts with developing hard and fast rules restricting vessel strikes and preventing fishing gear entanglements. Going forward, we need to make Snow Cone’s tragedy the exception, not the rule.