Twenty-nine sperm whales stranded on shores around the North Sea in January 2016. They were all relatively young, from ten to fifteen years old.
The results of the necropsies of thirteen of the whales that beached in a town called Tönning, on Germany’s North Sea coastline, showed plastic bags clogging the animals’ stomachs.
Four of the thirteen whales had great amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. A 70cm piece of plastic from a car, a 13-meter-long fishing net and other pieces of plastic litter had been accidentally ingested by the whales.
Sperm whales typically subsist on a diet comprised mostly of fish, crab, shrimp, and squid. But, these whales had accidentally swallowed a surprising amount of exceedingly strange stuff: plastic garbage bags, grocery bags, bucket parts, car parts, and perhaps the strangest of all, a 13-meter-long fishing net.
According to environment minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein, Robert Habeck, these findings are indicative of the results of our plastic-oriented society. Whales and other marine mammals accidentally consume plastic and plastic waste that causes them to suffer or even starve with full stomachs.
Even though the large pieces of plastic do block the gut and cause serious problems, the smaller pieces should not be dismissed, as they may cause a more chronic problem for all species of cetacean — marine mammals, like porpoises, whales and dolphins.
That’s not all, a young sperm whale was found floating dead off the Greek island of Mykonos in 2011. The animal’s stomach was so distended that experts thought that it might have swallowed a massive squid. However, about 100 plastic bags and other pieces of debris were found in its stomach.
In 2018, a male sperm whale beached off the coast of Spain with 64 pounds of garbage and trash bags in its stomach. The juvenile male had swallowed plastic bags, nets, ropes, and a plastic drum. The plastic waste blocked its digestive system, triggering an infection.
These marine mammals have become the marine icon of ecological threat. We have stopped hunting them. But, many thousands of marine mammals are compromised and killed by the pollution we let escape into the ocean.
These animals are still victims of our industrialisation and our excessive thirst for growth at the expense of everything else. And this is an important wake-up call to the fact that we can and should do more to stop ocean plastic pollution.