Contents of a sperm whale’s stomach: squid parts and plastic

Photo credit: Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute / A. Frantzis

After I wrote about the sperm whale that died from eating 100 plastic bags, Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, Scientific Director at the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute in Greece sent me another photo of a sperm whale’s stomach contents. This photo shows the new normal for a sperm whale’s diet in the eastern Mediterranean Sea as described by Dr. Frantzis: “Squid remains (flesh, eye lenses and beaks) typically accompanied by at least one…plastic bag. In this case a big one, probably used to contain construction material.”

Just to make sure we are all on the same page, this is what you are seeing in the photo:

Top left corner: One large plastic bag, probably used to contain construction materials.
Top right corner: Fleshy squid parts.
Lower left corner: Squid beaks. (The larger pieces are the upper beak and the small pieces are the lower beak.
Lower right corner: Squid eye lenses.
Row of round squid items in the middle on the right side: Dr. Frantzis explained, “This is the entire mouth system, with the the upper and lower beak inside (the edge is just visible), still surrounded by flesh and muscles.”

To me, this photo is fascinating for two reasons. First, you can see why the sperm whale could confuse the plastic bag with a squid, they are almost the same color and most likely look the same underwater. Second, you get a chance to see how much a sperm whale eats…a lot! There are piles of squid parts in this whale’s stomach.

According to Dr. Frantzis, this sperm whale didn’t die from eating a plastic bag, instead it died from becoming entangled in fishing longlines around its tail. A human induced death nonetheless.

Even though the sperm whale didn’t die from eating the plastic bag, it still begs the question: How does an enormous plastic bag used for construction end up in the Mediterranean Sea? I can think of three possible scenarios: 1) The bag was intentionally dumped into the Mediterranean Sea. 2) The bag fell off of a boat or ship. 3) The plastic bag wasn’t disposed of properly on land and the wind carried it to sea.

Based on what I’ve seen in Los Angeles, the third scenario is quite likely. During walks around my neighborhood, I have picked up huge plastic bags and reams of plastic sheeting just lying on the sidewalk. My guess is that both are related to construction and might have even flown out of the back of a truck. If people can’t manage and dispose of plastic properly, does that mean it’s time for a ban on all plastic bags? I think sperm whales would be in favor of the ban, too bad they can’t vote.

(Note: Thanks to Dr. Alexandros Frantzis and the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute for sharing this photo and for all they do to help whales, dolphins and porpoises living in the Mediterranean Sea.)


  1. says

    The Sperm whale and I have similar taste. Squids and calamari are excellent sea food to consume but unfortunately for the whale, he can’t see very well what he is eating because his sight is mostly in his sonar clicks. Sound waves are useless when it comes to ocean junk and deadly fishing nets. There is another danger to the Sperm Whales in the North Atlantic. The oil exploration companies use VERY loud sounds blasting through the waters below to find oil and gas deposits around the North Sea. The Sperm Whales are confused by the commotion and some of them get disoriented and ended up beaching themselves.


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