We’ve been reporting for several years on the serious problems associated with the dumping of plastics in our oceans. And though mass beachings like this one have been going on for decades, massive viral response to these ongoing tragedies really began with the discovery of these twenty-nine sperm whales stranded on shores around Germany. Scientists were deeply disturbed by what they found in the animals’ stomachs.
According to a press release from Wadden Sea National Park (WSNS) in Schleswig-Holstein, some of the whales had stomachs loaded with plastic debris:
“One of the most notable pieces of garbage is the remains of a 13 meter long and 1.2-meter wide protective net used in crab fishing, a 70-centimeter long plastic cover from the engine compartment of a car and the sharp edges of a plastic bucket. ” This is an urgent reminder to work against garbage in the sea to intensify this, “said Environment Minister Robert Habeck… Four of the 13 whales had large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs.”
At the time, it was questioned whether the huge amount of garbage found in the dead whales’ stomachs was what finally killed the whales, however, there have been a number of whales and other marine life deaths since that have mirrored this tragedy and plastic and trash were a common denominator in the autopsies.
In a somewhat conflicting statement, Robert Habeck, environment minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein said:
“These findings show us the results of our plastic-oriented society. Animals inadvertently consume plastic and plastic waste, which causes them to suffer, and at worst, causes them to starve with full stomachs.”
Nicola Hodgkins of Whale and Dolphin Conservation echoes that statement: “Although the large pieces will cause obvious problems and block the gut, we shouldn’t dismiss the smaller bits that could cause a more chronic problem for all species of cetacean – not just those who suction feed.”
What can’t be overlooked here, is that we as humans have a shocking disregard for marine life, which has resulted in the dumping of a staggering amount of plastic in the oceans and that many types of marine and bird life are turning up dead on our shores with plastics in their stomachs and nano and microplastics in their tissues.
This poor bird was found with 273 pieces of plastic in its stomach:
This isn’t the first time a sperm whale has been found dead with innards full of inedible contents. In 2011, a young whale was found floating dead off the Greek island of Mykonos. Its stomach was so distended, biologists thought the animal swallowed a giant squid. However, when its four stomachs were dissected, nearly 100 plastic bags and other pieces of debris were found.
At this point, scientists agree that there’s no agreement at this time about what can truly cause these large strandings but we suggest that plastics play a major part and that these other factors may compound their health problems related to ingesting plastics and foreign objects.
For example, it’s possible that military sonar can screw up whales’ “steering. The U.S. Navy uses mid-frequency sonar waves to detect submarines and these underwater sonar pulses can shock and disorient whales (and other marine life) causing them to accidentally run to shallow waters or traumatize them enough to cause them to beach themselves or even outright kill them.
It’s also been suggested that lack of food might have added to the problem with the whales being so hungry that they were frantically chasing prey as a group and ending up beached, with their sheer weight in the shallow waters causing the heart attacks or that whales following a sick whale’s distress call, and ending up stranded as a group in shallow waters.
Scientists also postulate that these marine mammals are “able to rest more easily if they can find a shallow area where they can stop moving. And that places them in hazardous situations.” It’s quite possible that the whales whose systems were burdened by the garbage may have placed the larger pod at additional risk, where they were hunting in these shallow waters.
It’s also possible, according to National Geographic, they may have died of heart failure. This could have been the result of them somehow swimming into the North Sea looking for food (likely squid) that’s now in short supply in our oceans due to overfishing and then not being able to support their own body weights in the shallow water. As a result, their internal organs collapsed.
Regardless of the true reasons (which scientists still cannot seem to agree upon), it seems that in most cases, man-made influences are to blame.
And, regardless, the fact that many of their stomachs were full of pollution paints a horrible picture of what we humans are doing to the planet.
Eighty Percent of the plastic which is discarded on land ends up in the oceans, where it is consumed by wildlife or swirls for years in great garbage patches. The fact that mankind – a species with a smaller brain than a whale – is responsible for such a travesty is ironic and saddening. Until humans learn the value of living sustainably while respecting all life forms, travesties such as this one will continue to take place.
Thank you for taking the time to read our article. We hope that you will share your opinion on what may have caused the death of these whales and of other marine life and what we might all do to help save our oceans, our sea life and our planet.
Investigation of the stranded sperm whales: Large amounts of plastic waste found in the stomachs – Environment Minister Habeck: “This urges us to step up against garbage in the sea.” Press release of the Ministry of Energy, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Areas in Schleswig-Holstein, March 2016
SeaTurtlesOrg, Ocean Plastic & Sea Turtles
Whale Watcher, Sperm Whale, Whale of Extremes, JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN CETACEAN SOCIETY Spring 2012 Volume 41, Number 1
Live Science, Why Do Whales Beach Themselves? , September 2010
Ecowatch, 22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It), April 2014
Scientific American, Does Military Sonar Kill Marine Wildlife?
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