Plastic washed up on a Tenerife beach

Plastic flotsam can be seen worldwide

Pieces of plastic flotsam
Credit: Photo by Steve Andrews

Plastic flotsam kills whales

Floating plastic is a threat to marine life

Many whale species have become endangered due to hunting but they now have another very serious threat to their survival and it takes the form of plastic flotsam. Many people really do not appreciate just what a very great danger thrown away plastic can be but it is claiming the lives of millions of marine animals every year.

This is because sea birds, turtles, whales and other animals that depend on the oceans for their food are swallowing floating plastic, often by accident and at other times because it is mistaken for squid and jellyfish or other forms of prey.

Humpback Whale underwater shot

Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback Whale swimming
Credit: In Public Domain

David de Rothschild and The Plastiki

An adventurer and author

In 2009, adventurer, environmentalist and author David de Rothschild journeyed with his crew across the Pacific Ocean on an epic voyage aboard a boat made from recycled plastic bottles and aptly named The Plastiki. One of the aims of this expedition was to draw attention to the dangers to marine life being caused by plastic that is polluting our seas.

David is extremely concerned about the number of whales and other marine animals that are being killed because of the vast amounts of the stuff that is floating around in the oceans. He notes in his new book Plastiki: Across The Pacific on Plastic that they hardly saw any wildlife on their long journey from San Francisco to Sydney in Australia.

This was in sharp contrast to what it was like when Thor Heyerdahl crossed the sea on his Kon-Tiki raft back in 1947. The whales and other animals and birds that should be there have gone and marine pollution by plastic is one of the reasons why!

TEDxMunich - David de Rothschild/Plastiki- Plastics harming the oceans

Filter feeders

Plankton eaters

Although whales are the biggest mammals on the planet, many types feed on very small food but in very great quantities. They are "filter feeders" and live on the small crustaceans known as krill, as well as other forms of oceanic plankton.

These whales suck in vast amounts of water and filter out their food but sadly they have no way of separating plastic particles from the proper food they need. The oceans today have so much floating single-use plastic that vast gyres of the material have accumulated with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch being estimated as twice the size of Texas. There are five such gyres.

Plastic does not bio-degrade but breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming particle size. It has been shown that there are six parts of plastic particles to one of natural plankton in some places. This means that sea animals that eat plankton are eating very large amounts of plastic as well as proper food.

If this wasn't bad enough, plastic accumulates toxins and these then help poison the bodies of any unfortunate animal that has eaten the stuff, and in turn these poisoned sea creatures, such as fish, become part of the food chain which goes all the way up to reaching us.

Larger items of floating plastic get eaten by sea animals and birds too. This is because they mistake it for squid and jellyfish. To make a bad situation even worse, the seas have been drastically overfished and so there is far less for predatory marine animals to prey on. They have to eat whatever they can find, and often this is inedible and toxic plastic.

Whales swallow large amounts of plastic, and like turtles and seabirds such as albatrosses, are unable to digest the material or pass it through them. It accumulates in their stomachs and blocks their intestines. Because there is no room left for real food the animals can end up starving to death although their stomachs are full. Full of plastic!

Dead whales have shown this to be the case with a truly alarming amount of plastic rubbish found inside these unfortunate animals. A Gervais Beaked Whale that beached itself and died in Puerto Rico had 10 pounds of plastic in its gut. A Bryde's Whale died after having six square metres of plastic in its stomach, most of which were plastic bags.

Bryde's Whale Death Caused by Plastic Bags

Discovery News

A whale death caused by plastic reported

Discovery News reported on a Gray Whale that was washed up near Seattle after dying, and it was found to have 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweat pants, plastic fragments, duct tape, and a golf ball in its stomach.

No one really knows how much plastic has been swallowed by whales or how many of the animals are still swimming around but with plastic inside them. It is obviously a very large number of whales and with a very large amount of plastic they have previously consumed.

It is very hard to imagine a world in which there are no whales left in our oceans but we are heading that way and one of the main reasons is the plastic that is out there!

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.