Mysterious Sperm Whale Deaths Continue — With Marine Litter Found In Their Stomachs

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This year has not been kind to sperm whales. Thirteen young bulls have washed ashore near the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, in the latest spate of mysterious deaths that have plagued the species since January. This brings the death-toll to over 30 animals since January, found beached or washed ashore around the North Sea. The North Sea typically sees six strandings a year; it’s April, and we’re already over four times that number, which is more than a little concerning. Figuring out exactly why this is happening is proving perplexing for scientists, who cite a variety of possibilities and reasons — but there’s one aspect of the deaths that’s probably not too surprising to any of us:

When it comes to the ocean and its animals, we have collectively got to clean up our acts.

Following a necropsy, it was discovered that four of the thirteen animals had trash in their stomachs, including a shrimp fishing net, a plastic bucket, and a car engine cover. Ursula Siebert, who headed the team that performed the examination, says “the marine litter did not directly cause the stranding,” and as the head of the Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, she is well-placed to know. Her examination revealed that the whales each died of heart failure; it’s suggested that the cause of this heart failure was possibly a wrong turn during migration. The bulls mistakenly entered the North Sea, a shallower passage between the UK and Norway, where these deep-diving mammals (known to plunge as deep as 3,280 feet in search of squid) were unable to support their own body-weights, and suffered disorientation and organ collapse.

Had the whales not taken a wrong turn, the sea trash consumed by the four might have caused digestive problems down the road, including internal damage, and a false sense of satiety that could have impacted the animals’ hunting and feeding behavior. Although the litter did not directly kill the whales, it is certainly a stark reminder that there’s more out there for other animals to consume; some of those animals much smaller than the sperm whale, with significantly smaller digestive tracts. How much more? Consider the study that finds nearly eight million metric tons of plastic trash finds itself a new “home” in the ocean every year. That’s trash that is consumed by whales, sea turtles, albatross, seals, and fish. There’s also the spectre of ghost fishing: abandoned fishing equipment which continues to catch sea life while failing to profit or serve anyone.

The deaths of these sperm whales don’t have to be in vain if they can serve as a poignant reminder that we have a duty to the planet’s oceans and their residents. If the problems seem large and impossible to tackle, remember that it’s some of the ocean’s tiniest residents that are responsible for producing half of the oxygen we breathe. Small things, working together, can make a big impact. Here are some ways to start helping the ocean:

  • Have Whale Sense: if you participate in whale watching, know how to minimize disturbance to these magnificent animals. Noise pollution and collisions are responsible for strandings, deaths, and injuries.
  • Familiarize yourself with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. You’ll be prepared if you encounter a marine mammal in the wild.
  • Practice living sustainably, and download Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App. Seafood harvested or farmed sustainably ensures that your choices aren’t negatively affecting the ocean, whether in the form of by-catch, overfishing, or harmful farming methods.
  • Support plastic bag bans, and shop with your own reusable tote. Say no to one-time use plastics as much as possible.
  • Join the annual International Coastal Cleanup, and consider making beach walk cleanups an integral part of your beach vacations.
  • Join everyone that is Racing Extinction, and find more ways to impact the planet.