Sperm whale: death by 100 plastic bags

Photo credit: Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute / A. Frantzis

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.)



      I have used this case in my university lectures to illustrate the effects of uncontrolled plastics disposal as an example of ……environmental damage.

      • Carolyn Kraft says

        That’s wonderful to hear Hikmat! I’m glad this article was helpful and that it’s reaching a broader audience through your class!

  1. Bryan says

    A gut-wrenching but really important post. Thank you for getting the word out there. If we care about our oceans we really need to reduce our dependence on plastic. I wholeheartedly support the ban on plastic bags in Los Angeles and will encourage others to support it as well.

  2. Mary R. McConnell says

    We, as a society, with many of our developed foreign neighbors, have grown accustomed to our disposable lifestyles. This causes many challenges, difficulties, and expenses for others. Just try to find repair businesses, for a mild example. I believe we, as a global community, will ultimately be held responsible for the carnage, waste, and decimation of our planet home. Perhaps by the planet itself, perhaps by other entities, or even as many believe, by the force many call God. Let’s take oil tankers, they’re massive, crew them with members paid for by oil companies (not their employees, ecological activists, perhaps), and some fishing nets (ugh). Then, locate the gyres, and do our level best to CLEAN them up! I know they are huge! I know some creatures may be killed during clean up attempts. I know it seems like too little too late. We have to start somewhere, and just stopping the practices of using our waterways as sewers, and garbage dumps is not enough. Sorry, trash in our waterways has been one of my pet peeves since the 60’s.

    • says

      Yes BUT something needs to be done starting with the stores. They don’t offer paper any longer and these plastic bottles are a joke. What to do, what to do?

  3. Antonia says

    Funny, I don’t see where it was ever said what the whale’s actual cause of death was. The 100 plastic bags in the stomach are disturbing, yes, but this is clearly an opinion piece. Better that people be responsible in disposing of trash than taking away freedom of choice and invoking the law of unintended consequences.

  4. RD says

    What I want to know is how did so many bags get to the bottom of the ocean?
    I agree we need to cut down on the usage, however this is not the root cause.
    Considering the numbers we are talking, seems to me that this is a waste disposal teritory or something similar…. I hope this is not where my tax money has been invested! – Story is missing critical information, we know what the issue is, but what we do not know is how did so many platic objects get there? anybody know?

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Hello RD, Plastic objects find their way to the ocean in many different ways. Plastic bags are caught and blown to the ocean by the wind, plastic items wash off boats, plastic trash is left on local beaches and washes in at high tide and in many coastal cities trash left in the street is carried to the ocean through the storm drain system when it rains. It’s very difficult to trace the plastic trash path specifically.

      For example, even in the case of this whale, one of the plastic bags had the address of the restaurant it was picked up from, but we don’t know if the person who ordered food threw it in the street and then it washed to the ocean during the next rain or did they throw it in the trash and somehow the wind picked it up and carried it to the ocean. That’s why it’s best to eliminate plastic bags at the source, even proper disposal doesn’t guarantee it won’t end up in the ocean. I’ve even seen plastic bags flying out of garbage trucks in Los Angeles, in that case everyone did the right thing and it still didn’t work.

  5. Angela says

    @Antonia: It’s not explicitly stated, but from the detailed descriptions given (the whale was bone thin; the stomach was abnormally large and easy to find and stuffed with plastic), it’s clear that the whale starved to death because its digestive system was clogged with bags.

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Thanks Angela! Yes, you are correct, while I didn’t state it explicitly, the whale did starve to death. Here’s another direct quote from the ACS Whalewatcher article on “Sperm Whales in the Mediterranean” by Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Alexandros Frantzis and Luke Rendell: “In such cases, the whale dies emaciated and with a lot of suffering and pain.”

  6. Theresa says

    Yes I agree with Antonia. This is sad that there are so many plastic bags in the whales stomach and I know that certain parts of Europe have trouble with their waste disposal, having seen it first hand.

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Hi John- Thanks for posting this video, it’s a great continuation of the sperm whale’s story, only in this case a harp seal, turtle and pygmy sperm whale all died from eating plastic bags. Everyone reading, please watch this video!

  7. Suzanne Rosenorn says

    I remember when all the stores started using plastic bags instead of paper. At the time I thought to myself what is this cheap crap they are making us use and why?

    • Carolyn Kraft says

      Excellent question Suzanne! Some plastic bags are so poorly made they break before they’ve even been used once. What a waste.

  8. Melanie says

    While I feel for the animals harmed by selfish Jerks The problem is not the plastic bags! It is the lazy selfish bastards that think “someone else will clean up my mess”. If people who gave a shit about the plastic bags would explain that you also can recycle, reuse an dispose of them properly along with all the other trash this wouldn’t happen and our country would be cleaner.

  9. Amanda says

    Antonia – The whale died BECAUSE its stomach was filled with plastic. The whale’s stomach felt full, but it was receiving no nutrients and STARVED TO DEATH as a result.

    This happens to cetaceans, seals, turtles, and fish and we are completely to blame. Your “choice” to use plastic bags and throw them into the environment is degrading the planet other people and creatures live on. So, your “choice” is unimportant in the grand scheme of things.


  1. […] There are certainly plenty of emotive images and reports around showing, say, the contents of a sperm whale’s stomach, or a turtle swallowing a bag, but there does indeed seem to be little quantitative research […]

  2. […] In 2012 A whale was found off Mykonos, Greece with over 100 plastic bags in it’s stomach.  ’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.” (Source) […]

  3. […] and the inherent conflicts the environment offers. The recent mural was born from reading about a dead sperm whale that washed ashore in the Aegean Sea. The Scientists who examined the whale’s corpse, which was both bloated and emaciated, were […]

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