Whales are majestic creatures, seemingly fitting the bill of gentle giant to a tee. They’re some of the largest animals to exist on Earth, and were shown to lead intricate, complex social lives. It is for those reasons that seeing a beached whale is so heartbreaking for us: animals so large and powerful, caught in such a helpless, hopeless position.
That was precisely the case when an adolescent sperm whale washed up on the shores of one Dutch island. While it was initially alive, and concerted efforts were made to save it, it was ultimately to no avail, and the male – or bull – passed away.
Whales have been revered and feared in equal measures throughout human history, and sperm whales are no exception. While the Vietnamese thought of them as gods, and even held funerals for beached whales on occasion, others feared them, viewing them as sea monsters. Today, we have a more grounded understanding of these animals, whose conservation status has been deemed “vulnerable” – one step before endangered.
When a healthy, relatively young whale dies in such a manner, therefore, it bears investigating, and researchers took the whale in for a necropsy. Read on to find out what they discovered, and how it was but one single item in a much larger, worrying picture.
A young sperm whale dies
Sperm whales are some of the largest whale specimens in existence. An adult male, or bull, can reach from 52 to 67 feet and weigh 56 metric tons. They are majestic animals, which have fascinated mankind for eons. When a healthy, young bull dies, then, scientists immediately try to decipher what happened. Such was the case in July, 2013, when a young adult sperm whale – 44 feet in length – washed up on the northern Dutch island of Terschelling. Initially still alive when he beached, fruitless efforts were made to save him. After his death, the unnaturally bloated whale was cut open to discover what transpired. What researchers found in his stomach devastated them.
The name’s origins
The first curious thing about this species is their name. It’s actually derived from the spermaceti organ, which produces a wax-like substance in their head cavity. They either use it for buoyancy or to focus their echolocation – the means by which whales navigate the seas. It’s also a chief reason they were hunted, as the spermaceti could be processed to ]create an oil that remained liquid even in winter temperatures, as well as wax that could be used in candle making. The oil, meanwhile, was particularly prized for its use in oil lamps, as it burned more brightly than any other and gave off no foul odor. Whaling was not what killed our whale, however…
The whale’s cause of death revealed
The Terschelling whale was taken to the Dutch port town of Harlingen for a necropsy. While its results were heartbreaking, they were far from extraordinary – his stomach was overflowing with plastic garbage. Sperm whales are especially prone to swallowing plastic as they often mistake it for squids, the prey they normally feed on. As plastic cannot be digested, it accumulates in the whale’s stomach until it suffers intestinal blockage, and dies. How much plastic does it take to kill a whale? Surprisingly little.
Beaked whales fall prey as well
Very similar to sperm whales but much less known are beaked whales, which also primarily subsist on squid. In May, 2011, a young female beaked whale was found on a Puerto Rican beach with ten pounds of plastic in her stomach. In July, 2006, a 20-year-old female beaked whale died in Rarotonga – the largest of the Cook Islands – after ingesting a single plastic shopping bag. If one bag is enough, the enormous amounts of plastic in our oceans should worry us all.
The albatross chicks of Midway
Estimates say that more than one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals annually die after ingesting plastic. In September, 2009, photos of albatross chicks on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean surfaced. They were fed a diet of plastic by their parents, who scoured the oceans for what looks like food – finding only trash. Tens of thousands of Midway albatross chicks die every year due to the staggering amount of plastics in their environment.
Thousands of turtles fall prey to plastic
Sea turtles are sadly no less susceptible to the dangers of plastic pollution. One recent study, for example, found at least 5,000 turtles were entangled in more than 8,000 nets in one stretch of Australian coast. Nets and other fishing gear are not the only items to blame, however, as turtles can ingest anything from plastic forks and straws to balloons, not to mention get tangled in plastic six-pack rings.
The most polluted island in the world
Henderson Island, a World Heritage site in the south Pacific Ocean, is one of the world’s last two coral atolls unaffected by man, as it’s uninhabited. Its beaches, meanwhile, are worse off: they contain an estimated 37.7 million plastic items weighing 17.6 tons. It took a five-person team six hours to survey a 32-foot section of one of its beaches. The pollution level is so incredible because there are no major cities within a 3,000 mile radius of it. Taken from a global perspective, how big is the plastic pollution problem?
Choked by plastic
You may realize plastic waste is a problem, as it isn’t biodegradable, but you probably aren’t aware of the extent of the problem. By 2015, a study found, humans have created 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste, only nine percent of which was recycled. Another 12 percent were incinerated and the remaining 79 percent were simply discarded – either in landfills or in the natural environment, which includes our beaches and oceans. When you examine data specifically about plastic pollution in our oceans, the danger comes into sharp focus.
Oceans overflowing with garbage
Examining our oceans specifically, about 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into these bodies of water annually. How often does it happen? One garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute. By 2020, the amount of plastic in the ocean will increase tenfold and by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans, going by weight. Plastic apparently congregates, as there are five enormous patches of plastic floating around the world. One of them – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – is especially noteworthy.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
As its name attests, the patch is actually a huge pile of accumulated plastic garbage floating between Hawaii and California. It’s possibly the world’s most famous collection of garbage, and rightfully so – it’s bigger than Texas! It was first discovered in 1997, and is comprised of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic – mostly abandoned fishing gear rather than consumer goods – weighing a total of 80,000 metric tons. One young man decided to eradicate this blight.
A cleanup operation like no other
Boyan Slat, a Dutch teenage entrepreneur and inventor, created the Ocean Cleanup to rid the ocean of plastic pollution, most notably in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat, now 24, has invested $32 million in the operation, which grew from a high school project of his. Wishing to also have the public show its support, the nonprofit held a crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than $2 million from more than 38,000 people from 160 countries in just 100 days.
Massachusetts sixth grader takes on plastic pollution
12-year-old Massachusetts student Anna Du developed a remotely operated underwater vehicle that utilizes infrared light to identify and sort microplastics – fingernail-sized pieces of plastic in the ocean. “I’ve always loved marine animals and walking around the beach,” she explained. “One day I noticed there was plastic everywhere around Boston Harbor, and so I tried to clean it up. But there was just so many that I wanted to make something to help.” And help is sorely needed, as plastic can – and does – kill animals.
37 pounds of plastic items
The sperm whale, ten meters in length, washed up on Spain’s southern coast. It was killed after ingesting 59 different plastic items, totaling more than 37 pounds – mostly transparent sheeting used to build tomato greenhouses. As for the rest, it was plastic bags, a nine meter rope, two bits of hosepipes, two small flower pots, and a spray canister. The whale died when the plastic accumulated in its intestines, blocking the passage of everything else.
Benevolent beings or cruel monsters?
Since whales reside mostly in the depth of the sea or near the poles, mankind’s early contact with them had been sporadic. Many seafaring cultures included whales in their myths, from the Nordic tribes of modern-day Scandinavia to Pacific Islanders in today’s Australia. In Vietnam and Ghana, whales are considered divine, to the point of occasionally holding funerals for beached whales. Whales are even mentioned in the Bible – usually in less than glowing terms, such as the whale that swallowed Jonah. One particular whale seemed to have justified their reputation.
The sinking of the Essex
The Essex was a whaler ship based in Nantucket, Massachusetts and used in the commercial hunting of whales in the 19th century. In 1820, it set sail for the western coast of South America to hunt for whales in the southern Pacific Ocean. During the largely unsuccessful mission, the Essex was rammed twice – intentionally – by an abnormally large sperm whale bull. It sank, and the crew was forced to find its way to safety in the ship’s small whaleboats – used to harpoon the animals. Another sperm whale with an almost-familiar name was spotted in the same region…
A vicious white whale
Often sighted near Mocha Island off the coast of Chile – in roughly the same region the Essex was sunk in – a whale known as Mocha Dick was the scourge of Nantucket whalers. Said to have been albino, he purportedly survived 100 skirmishes with hunters throughout his life before finally being killed. While he was usually docile, and would even swim alongside boats, when attacked he would prove a ruthless, cunning adversary. He was killed in 1838, and 19 harpoons were found in his body. His lasting impact? A fictional whale you may know.
In 1851, a novel by American author Herman Melville was published, sold some 3,200 copies and was largely forgotten for the next seven decades. That novel? Moby Dick, the tale of the invariably failed attempts of Captain Ahab to hunt down the titular whale, ultimately ending in disaster. Inspired by both the Essex’s sinking and legends surrounding Mocha Dick – as well as Melville’s own experiences on a whaling vessel – it grew to be recognized as one of the “Great American Novels” and went on to inspire generations to come.
The Bruges plastic whale
STUDIOKCA, a Brooklyn architecture and design firm created a 38-foot sculpture of a whale, composed of over five tons of plastic pulled from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The project, dubbed Skyscraper, was meant to show how this natural skyscraper of the sea – a whale – is affected by our skyscrapers and modern life. Made from almost 4,000 square feet of plastic waste, it weighs 10,000 pounds. “An opportunity like this to show the type and amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans is really important,” its creator said.
Going for shock value
The local Philippines branch of the international Greenpeace environmentalist organization took things a step further with its Dead Whale installation. Created entirely using plastic waste, the 50-foot whale seemingly beached itself on the beach of Manila Bay. Since it was so lifelike – and since Greenpeace did little to promote the project – many people for fooled into believing it was a real whale, which died due to ingesting plastics. It represented an all too grim reality, one in which plastic waste will outweigh marine animals – in our lifetimes.
What can be done?
Changing direction on plastic pollution is still possible. While some measures should be undertaken on the government level – such as research into biodegradable plastics or public awareness campaigns – the simplest, and possibly most effective means of combating this problem can always be carried out by each and every one of us. “Plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats facing our oceans,” an expert said. Cutting down on our use of plastic products whenever possible will contribute to beating this danger, and ensuring the story of the Terschelling whale will not happen again.