Since my celebratory post last week on the City of Los Angeles plastic bag ban, this gruesome photo came to my attention. For those of you out there who still aren’t convinced that banning plastic bags is a good idea, then you must take a really good look at this photo of 100 plastic bags found in a dead sperm whale’s stomach.
The photo was taken by Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, Scientific Director at the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute in Greece. It was also published in the most recent issue of Whalewatcher, the journal published by the American Cetacean Society (ACS), which you should definitely check out because it’s all about sperm whales, the good, the bad and in this case, the ugly. (Everything about sperm whales is good, they are amazing animals in every way; the bad and the ugly centers around negative human impacts and how we are managing to harm and kill sperm whales even without whaling.)
The story of this whale is told in the ACS Whalewatcher. Scientists with the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI) discovered a dead sperm whale floating near Mykonos Island in the Aegean Sea. It turns out the sperm whale was a male calf and close to 17 feet long, indicating he was an older calf, but still very young. He was bone thin; something had clearly gone wrong.
During the necropsy (an autopsy on animals), scientists were surprised to discover that the stomach was very easy to find. Normally, it’s buried deep within the anatomy of a sperm whale and hard to reach. It came popping out and was “disproportionately big and full for such a young whale.” At first the necropsy team wondered if the sperm whale had managed to eat a giant squid, the first record of a giant squid in the Mediterranean Sea?! But no, instead they found a miniature plastic landfill.
Here’s the direct quote describing the scene from the ACS Whalewatcher article on “Sperm Whales in the Mediterranean” by Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Alexandros Frantzis and Luke Rendell: “All our ‘civilization’ was in the stomach of this whale. Tens of big compacted plastic bags used for garbage or construction materials, all kinds of plastic cover for anything we can buy in a supermarket, plastic ropes, pieces of nets, even a plastic bag with full address and telephone number of a souvlaki restaurant in the town of Thessaloniki. Unfortunately, the whale could not call to complain about the damage caused by their product.”
The finally tally: 100 plastic bags in the sperm whale’s stomach, plus other debris!
In the article, the researchers explain that young sperm whale’s are at greatest risk for eating plastic bags because they are still learning how to identify prey and plastic bags underwater probably look a lot like the large squid they like to eat. Although, they have also found dead adult sperm whales with plastic debris in their stomachs.
During an email exchange, I asked Dr. Alexandros Frantzis: “Have you seen this in sperm whales before? Or was this a first? Just curious because I didn’t know this was a problem in sperm whales.”
Dr. Frantzis responded: “Unfortunately yes. Several times and in various cetacean species: sperm whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales and Rissos’ dolphins. All these species have something in common: they are mainly or exclusively squid eaters and deep divers. Except one beaked whale and one Risso’s dolphin that were found with their stomach completely or almost full of plastic bags (like that sperm whale), all other cases concerned a smaller quantity of plastic debris. However, we find plastic bags or other plastic products of human ‘civilization’ in an important percentage, more than 50%, of the stomach contents examined from the above mentioned cetacean species.”
My reaction summed up: Gasp, gulp, guilt, groan.
What are we doing to our oceans? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but we can still make a difference by reducing our use of plastic bags. Help sperm whales and all ocean animals by supporting plastic bag bans and using reusable canvas bags instead. It’s at least a start and the least we can do considering we created this mess.
(Note: A huge 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. To purchase a copy of the most recent Whalewatcher, contact the American Cetacean Society, or better yet, become a member and support conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises.)