A Tragic End for a Favorite Whale, Snowball

On June 29, 2014, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) was conducting their right whale aerial surveys north of George’s Bank when they came on an aggregation of 20 or more right whales. In amongst these whales was a right whale entangled in fishing gear and in extremely poor health. Rope wrapped across the top of the head, embedding itself there. Line lodged in the baleen exited the mouth and trailed behind the animal, having encircled the right flipper along the way. The whale’s skin was pale, and the head and body were carpeted with orange cyamids (these thrive on slower moving and/or injured whales). The whale was emaciated- its normally sleek, plump body was now sunken, with a deep depression on either side of the spine.

A badly entangled right whale in obviously poor condition. Photo credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center/ Peter Duley. Images taken under MMPA Permit #17355.

Upon landing, NEFSC shared the images with our right whale team to see if we could match it to the Right Whale Catalog. We spent countless hours trying to identify this whale, but the usual identifying features were so obscured by cyamids and new wounds that we were unable to match it. A Departmentof Fisheries and Oceans Canada team took to the sky in an attempt to relocate the entangled whale, but they were unsuccessful. The June 29 sighting was the last time this whale was seen.

"Rope wrapped across the top of the head, embedding itself there." Photo credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center/ Peter Duley. Images taken under MMPA Permit #17355.

Recently, I spent a day looking at photographs of this whale to see if I could find something that had been overlooked. It was an emotionally hard day- staring at lines cutting deep into the whale’s head and possibly into bone, thinking about how this poor animal was suffering.  Just when I was on the verge of giving up, I recognized a mark peeking through the cyamids. I knew that mark. With a sinking heart, I called up images of Catalog #1131, “Snowball,” and made the match.

Snowball was named for the "snowball scar" on the left side of his head. Image credit: Whale Center of New England.

Snowball is an old male in our population, and was one of the whales in our sponsorship program. He was named for a scar on the left side of his head that looks like he had been hit by a snowball that stuck there. We have been watching him since 1979 when he was first seen in Great South Channel east of Cape Cod. We saw Snowball almost every year from 1979 until May of 2010. His absence in our sighting record since then was unusual and our concern started to grow. Given his poor condition in June and the fact that we would usually have seen him every year, it is quite possible that Snowball had been entangled in this gear for several years.

Snowball, looking plump and healthy in 2007. Photo credit: Center for Coastal Studies, Right Whale Research. Copyright: CCS Image, NOAA Permit #633-1763, All Rights Reserved.

Snowball has almost certainly died since his June 2014 sighting—having slowly succumbed to infection or starvation, or both. His emaciated body would likely not have floated, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and leaving no chance of someone reporting his carcass. Every right whale death is tragic. But our long history with this individual and knowing the lengthy, profound suffering he endured makes his plight almost unbearable. The dramatic decrease in mortalities from ship strike means that for right whales, entanglement in fishing gear is now the leading cause of mortalities, and of their suffering. Though we continue to research ways to reduce entanglement, with 83% of the right whale population having been entangled at least once, we humans have found no effective way to mitigate this harm yet. We must do better.

Our last sighting of Snowball. 
Photo credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center/ Peter Duley. 
Images taken under MMPA Permit #17355.

Snowball is gone. All that remains is our record of his life, the children whose hearts he touched through our sponsorship program, and our sorrow for what we humans did to him.


  1. So so tragically sad. RIP Snowball :(

  2. We know not what we do...

    1. For the selfish gain that comes in a net and discarded; comes the loss of a beautiful and innocent creature of nature. Hopefully this will impact, in some way, to create more awareness and changes in the fishing industry.

  3. Very tragic. Sad & maddening.

  4. Terribly sad. Thank you for sharing this. That 83% have been entangled is really disturbing. I'm curious whether line can be marked and identifiable, and whether that is feasible as some kind of first step towards a solution. Is line and netting something that boaters can be encouraged to pick up and remove from the sea (and if possible, bring to their local Coast Guard station or NOAA?)? What can individual boaters do to help? Is there some public information campaign that can bring attention to this?

    1. Is the 83% entanglement rate based on published research? If yes, where can I find it? Thank you.

    2. Re: Mary Whitney- yes, 83% entanglement rate is based on published research: http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v466/p293-302/

    3. Re: Pam Loring- thank you for your questions! I hope these answers help:

      1. Marking gear?
      Gear marking is required in US federal waters, and was expanded under recent rule making (June 2014). The surface buoy and buoy line must be marked, but it's not required to mark gear beyond that. No gear marking is required in Canadian waters. There is still work to be done on this front, as entangling gear on animals is not always marked, and the recovery of gear to identify breaking strength and the fishery does not happen as often as liked. You can find more info here: http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/Protected/whaletrp/

      2. Boaters collecting marine debris?
      Yes, it's a great help to our oceans to collect and properly dispose of marine debris such as plastics and "ghost gear." Unfortunately, many large whale entanglements occur with actively fished gear- gear that has not been abandoned. I think this is a point that is overlooked that we'd like to raise awareness about. If a boater encounters an entangled animal, regardless of the type of gear, we encourage people to call the Northeast Fisheries Science Center hotline in their region. From Virginia to Maine, call 866-755-NOAA, and from Florida to North Carolina, call 877-WHALE-HELP. This information can be found here: http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/surveys/documents/20120919_Report_a_Right_Whale.pdf

      3. How to help?
      If you see an entangled whale, we encourage boaters to call the NEFSC hotline (previous paragraph) and to NOT attempt to disentangle it yourself (unless authorized). A response network and specially trained disentanglement teams exist up and down the East Coast, and they know how to handle a variety of situations and the best way to retrieve gear. Boaters can standby until help arrives, and can photograph the whale to document the situation, which experts can use to identify the individual and better understand the entanglement. Boaters with smartphones can download the app "Whale Alert," which is an easy way to document and report whales in distress: http://www.whalealert.org/

  5. Not sure how we as humans can fix this, but it is indeed a sad occasion to hear that another gentle giant has been lost. Whales are my favorite wild animal.

  6. Snowball, you will be missed. Many of us will continue fighting the battle with you in mind : (
    Sorrow from Nan Hauser and the Rarotonga Whale Research Team ><> ><>

  7. This saddens me all the way to my soul and yet also angers me that we so easily forget the Sea is their home and we are just visitors. What can we do to educate to prevent this one day?

  8. this makes me so sad! It reinforces my desire to save the whales!

  9. The real cost of cheap seafood is unacceptably high