Back at the end of January, 13 sperm whales washed up dead on beaches in Germany. You might have heard about it, because it made international headlines. At the time, necropsies hadn’t been done, and speculation about the cause of the deaths ranged from global warming to pesticides. And although it has now been revealed that the most likely cause of death was acute cardiovascular failure, the contents of their stomachs was alarming, to say the least. Among the squid beaks and fish parts was a whole lot of plastic–just more damning evidence that plastic isn’t worth the convenience.
The sperm whales beached themselves in a town called Tönning, on Germany’s North Sea coastline. They were all relatively young, from 10 to 15 years old, and all in decent health. It was part of a strange spate of 30 beachings ranging in location from the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Germany.
Sperm whales normally subsist on a diet comprised mostly of squid, shrimp, crab, and fish. These ones, however, had accidentally eaten a surprising amount of exceedingly strange stuff: a plastic car part, bucket parts, and perhaps the strangest of all, a fishing net that was almost 50 feet long.
The whales’ deaths most likely came from simply finding themselves in water that was too shallow. When a whale isn’t supported by the ocean, the weight of its own body crushes its internal organs. It’s still a shining example of just how badly we’re treating the planet and nearly every other creature in it. “These findings show us the results of our plastic-oriented society,” said Robert Habeck, environment minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein. “Animals inadvertently consume plastic and plastic waste, which causes them to suffer, and at worst, causes them to starve with full stomachs.”
This isn’t anything new, either. Cetaceans and other sea-bound creatures have been showing up with bellies full of our trash for decades. By now, everyone with a computer has seen the heart-breaking images from Midway Island, where a photographer found young albatross chicks dead and full of plastic. They’d been fed it by their parents, who thought they were feeding their babies real food. They starved to death while their parents stuffed more plastic into their beaks.
An albatross chick found on Midway Island. Photo: Chris Jordan
Back in 2011, a sperm whale was found dead off the coast of Greece with a massively swollen stomach. Researchers initially thought it may have eaten a giant squid, but when they cut it open, they found over 100 plastic bags, along with a variety of other bits of human-made garbage. It’s thought that the whale may have believed the bags were jellyfish. Eventually, of course, the whale starved to death with a full stomach. “Although the large pieces will cause obvious problems and block the gut, we shouldn’t dismiss the smaller bits that could cause a more chronic problem for all species of cetacean,” said Nicola Hodgins, who works for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
Although the whales in Germany didn’t die from the plastic in their stomachs, it is a stark reminder that our gluttonous need for single-use plastics has far reaching effects. “The plastic debris in their stomachs is a horrible indictment of humans,” said Hal Whitehead, a whale researcher at Dalhousie University.
Humans are a funny species. While most countries no longer kill whales en masse for their blubber or oil, we’re still killing them in a different way. It’s easy to look at small parts of achievements and say we’re doing enough, but when we’ve created a life that is so incredibly self-serving that we’re actually killing other species just by living comfortably, it might be time to take a good hard look at how violently selfish our comforts have become.