“It was too tired to swim. It was trying to find a place for his final rest. He came here to die.”
The Cuvier’s beaked whale was found stranded in shallow waters off the island of Sotra, Norway. The local residents, personnel from the fire department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation repeatedly attempted to herd or tow the animal back into the deep.
However, three times the whale swam back into the shallow cove. When it returned for a third time, exhausted and lethargic, the wardens, realising it would not live, decided to put it down.
What the scientists, intrigued by this strange behaviour, found inside the whale was shocking. The two tonne animal had about 30 plastic bags and other garbage packed in its stomach.
There was “no food, only some remnants of a squid’s head in addition to a thin fat layer,” said University of Bergen zoologist Terje Lislevand.“It wasn’t like it was in just part of the stomach. It filled up the whole space. It’s the explanation of why the animal acted so strange and stranded.”
One piece was a flimsy sheet more than two metres long. But most were plastic bags, some still with ghostly writing which gave away their origins. One used to contain a chicken from Ukraine and another carried ice cream from Denmark.
There was also the outer wrapper from a six-pack of Walkers crisps, the UK copyright and recycling symbol still visible.
Lislevand said he believes the animal was in serious pain for a long time.
“I’m afraid to estimate how long it could have taken before his stomach was totally full,” he said. “In this case the plastic particles accumulated and created a barrier in the system.”
The whale is another in a mounting tally of victims claimed by plastic pollution of the ocean. Whales and other marine life are starving, distressed and in pain as a result of us recklessly polluting the oceans with plastic.
In January 2016, 29 sperm whales were stranded on the shores around the North Sea. The animals’ stomachs were filled with plastic debris. A 13-metre-long fishing net, a 70cm piece of plastic from a car and other pieces of plastic litter had been inadvertently ingested by the animals, who may have thought they were food, such as squid, their main diet, which they consume by sucking their prey into their mouths.
Only a few days ago, a dead whale was found on the Isle of Skye, UK with 4kg of plastic rubbish inside it. Dr Andrew Brownlow, a veterinary pathologist for Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, said the 4kgs of plastic bags and sheeting had filled the whale’s stomach, twisted into its intestine and completely blocked its digestive system. There were black bin liners, carrier bags and zipped freezer bags.
“For every one of these pieces it is possible that there would have been some form of human action that could have stopped it from getting into the marine environment,” said Dr Brownlow.
The United Nations estimates indicate that about 8 million tonnes of plastic trash is dumped into the ocean every year. A World Economic Forum study also found that there are currently at least 150 million tonnes of trash in the ocean.
Not only are we killing marine life with plastic but we are also harming ourselves.
A 2015 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis and Hasanuddin University in Indonesia found that one-quarter of fish sampled in fish markets in California and Indonesia had plastic or some other fibrous garbage in their bellies.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that people are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year.
What can we do about it?
Manufacturers need to design products that are easier to recycle, supermarkets must reduce plastic packaging and authorities should develop better ways of collecting and processing plastic waste.
We as consumers also need to rethink our use of single-use plastic, and to redouble our efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Individual pledges to cut back on plastic may seem futile. But if everybody changed their behaviour those small actions would add up to a lot and help to protect our oceans and the animals that live in them.
The story of the whale in Norway is a disgraceful reminder of what we have been doing to our oceans.