'Horrific' 220-Pound Ball of Plastic Found in the Stomach of a Dead Sperm Whale

By George Dvorsky on at

A recently deceased sperm whale found was found with a tightly wound ball of marine debris in its stomach, including an alarming assortment of plastics.

The dead whale was found on the Isle of Harris in Scotland, and it was examined this past weekend by members of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), reports the BBC. The group, which investigates dead whale strandings and performs on-the-beach dissections to determine cause of death, posted details about the incident on its Facebook page on Sunday.

The dead whale during dissection. Image: SMASS

The 22-tonne whale, which wasn’t quite fully mature, died on the sandbank of Luskentyre beach last Thursday, and the group performed its necropsy some 48 hours later. The Scottish Coast Guard and the Western Isles disposal team assisted SMASS.

The group found an approximately 220-pound (100 kilogram) mass of marine debris in the whale’s stomach. Among the clump of trash were fishing nets, bundles of ropes, plastic cups, bags, gloves, tubing, and other plastic items. This material had collected into a “huge ball” and some of it “looked like it had been there for some time,” according to SMASS.

Rope and apparent plastic-based tanglenet. Image: SMASS

Despite the significant amount of human waste found inside the stomach, SMASS members performing the necropsy were not able to determine cause of death.

“The animal wasn’t in particularly poor condition, and whilst it is certainly plausible that this amount of debris was a factor in its live stranding, we actually couldn’t find evidence that this had impacted or obstructed the intestines,” SMASS explained in its Facebook post. “This amount of plastic in the stomach is nonetheless horrific, must have compromised digestion, and serves to demonstrate, yet again, the hazards that marine litter and lost or discarded fishing gear can cause to marine life. It is also perhaps a good example that this is a global issue caused by a whole host of human activities.”

Debris pulled from the whale’s stomach. Image: SMASS

SMASS believes this debris came from both land and fishing sectors, and the whale likely gobbled it up as it passed through an area of the Atlantic Ocean spanning from Norway to the Azores. The group will continue to study this particular case to figure out why so much debris found its way into the sperm whale’s stomach.

Research from 2017 showed that 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has gone to waste since the 1950s, a good portion of it ending up in the ocean. The Chinese ban on plastic imports could trigger an even bigger wave of ocean pollution. The worsening plastic waste crisis has led some governments to act and single-use plastics have been banned in a number of places, including the European Union.

Featured image: SMASS