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OPINION

This is the story of a North Atlantic right whale’s will to live — and her species’ to survive

Snow Cone had her first calf in December 2019. The first time he was hit by a vessel was while coming to the surface to breathe, and the second while trying to dive out of the way.

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod Bay in 2018.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

This is the story of Snow Cone, one of fewer than 350 remaining North Atlantic right whales.

She was born in 2005, off Florida, and stayed close to mom, diving to suckle, resting on her nose, and playing. In 2011, her mother was killed by a vessel strike while suckling another calf. The calf died as well.

Snow Cone had her first calf in December 2019. She suckled it off Georgia and Florida. Lactating right whales don’t feed much until they return north. By May, they were off the coast of North Carolina, after which her calf was hit by a vessel’s propeller, causing serious wounds, with a series of parallel cuts along his left lips, to the chest and back. The first almost removed the tip of his nose, and the second, albeit not quite so deep, made it nearly impossible for him to suckle. A less robust animal would have died quickly, but right whales are tough. Boat traffic is often a problem for them. They carried on up the coast past the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Then, in late June, another vessel almost severed his tail from his body. He was hit the first time while coming to the surface to breathe, and the second while trying to dive out of the way. He bled copiously and died.

In the 44 years since her grandmother was first seen, in 1978 — a time span less than the life expectancy of a healthy right whale — of Snow Cone’s 21 close relatives, 12 are known or thought to be dead. Of those with known causes of death, three had lethal or serious entanglements with rope (83 percent of the species show entanglement scars), and four were struck by vessels. Three of the five most recent calves died from vessel collisions. Boats and ships that go too fast cannot be avoided in time.

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Snow Cone carried on.

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Normally, right whales calve every three years, if they can find enough food and avoid significant entanglement. Nonlethal entanglements can increase drag, interfere with feeding ability, and cause injury, infection, and weight loss, which all contribute to population decline through poor calving success. Since Snow Cone had suckled her calf for only the first half of the usual year before weaning, she still had some fat reserves left over. So, she headed up to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and got to it. The food was plentiful, and by close to the end of the year, she was fat and pregnant for a second time.

Then disaster struck again. She hit a piece of heavy rope, panicked, and spun, so that the rope wrapped around her upper jaw and through the baleen, with about 300 feet of rope trailing. It was tough to pull through the water, given the rope’s drag. She was unable to wriggle out of it, and had a growing calf in her belly. She just needed to feed as successfully as she could to deliver and suckle the calf. But large whales have highly sensitive skin. The acute pain, stress and panic, and the long-term suffering had to be unbearable, especially as the rope wrapped around her upper jaw.

By March 2021, she was feeding in Cape Cod Bay with other right whales. She was spotted by a survey plane and a small boat came close, and its crew cut off some of the rope. That made it easier to feed, but there was still a significant amount of rope trailing. In June, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, more rope was removed. It began to slide through the baleen, but not enough to make Snow Cone free of it.

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Her second calf was born off Georgia in early December 2021 and is doing well so far. Snow Cone is still badly entangled with rope around her upper jaw. Concern remains that the calf will get entangled in the rope still hanging from its mother’s mouth.

Snow Cone’s story isn’t unique among right whales; it’s all too common. Ask your elected representatives in Congress about the Right Whale Coexistence Act. Demand mandatory vessel speed reductions for all vessels wherever right whales go; and funding for ropeless technology that removes vertical ropes from the water column, saving both North Atlantic right whales from entanglement and the lobster industry from collapse. Ask them before it’s too late for this endangered species.

We know how to save right whales like Snow Cone and her calves. But we must ask ourselves if we have the will to do it.

Michael J. Moore is director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Marine Mammal Center and author of “We Are All Whalers.”