by Amelie Laute
Obviously, we can’t read a whale’s mind and it’s daring to pretend to do so. Still, by trying to understand the threats whales are facing from their perspective, even if it includes projecting our emotions onto an animal, we hopefully might remember more easily and more often what we can do every day to prevent them from dying because of our mistakes. Once a month, we want to show you one of the many worries a whale has to face and give you tips on how you can avoid contributing to their suffering. We will give you a little challenge to implement in your daily routine to start your action.
Imagine you are a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale in the waters of the Philippines. A male youngster, just experiencing the beauties of your underwater world. You have an unusual capacity of holding your breath, diving deep down to sometimes even close to 3 km is easy and fun. You rise to the surface, inhale as much air as you can, lift your tail and make your way down. At first, the water is clear and shining green, due to all the phytoplankton. The further you dive down, the darker it becomes, everything is blue and after a while you can’t see daylight anymore. The creatures surrounding you change too, some of them emit bioluminescence, self-produced light, some you can’t see at all. You grew up here, everything is familiar. Your parents showed you how to hunt fish and squid, using a very special sense you have. It is called echolocation. You can send high frequency beams of sound and when they echo back to you from surrounding objects, you know what and where they are. This makes it easy to find prey even in the total darkness. Or at least it should. But like your parents told you, in our modern times, meals are scarce so be grateful for every lunch, every dinner the ocean provides you.
One morning you are coming back from a search for a snack, it was a long and not very successful dive. You reach the surface and take a deep breath, when you see this white, weird-shaped thing floating ahead, reflecting the sunlight. You approach carefully but it doesn’t seem to recognise you as a threat. It is not the first time you have seen a creature like this, but it looks so odd, that you’ve never dared to have a taste. Nevertheless, you’re hungry, you haven’t had a proper meal in a while. Your instincts tell you to be careful, it might be poisonous or defend itself. But you’re young and strong and you decide to take the risk. You speed up towards it, take it in your mouth and swallow. Wow, nothing happened. It didn’t sting you, didn’t even seem to try to flee. Happy about your discovery, you see another one floating at the surface not too far away. You try again and again, it doesn’t defend itself. You’re amazed, and as you remember how often you’ve seen these creatures before, you realise that you won’t have to hunt so desperately for fish and squid anymore. Still feeling hungry though, you go on a hunt for the white creatures, it’s even easier than you thought. They’re literally everywhere! In the next days and weeks, you spend less time diving deep and instead you try to fill your stomach with the new discovery. But after a while, your enthusiasm decreases. Even though your belly is filled to the brim, you’re still hungry. Additionally, you can feel a rising pain in your stomach. Maybe you were mistaken, and these weird white creatures release some poison after being eaten? You become desperate, you try to vomit, but you can only spit out some blood. You start to feel miserable. You are not just too weak to go hunting fish and diving so deep, but there is also no space in your stomach. But you’re still so hungry, how can that be after eating so much? After a while you become disoriented, even swimming normally becomes harder and harder. Eventually, you are in so much pain, it feels like a great relief when you finally lose consciousness.
After your death, your body is picked up by scientists. In the necropsy, they open up your stomach and find 88 pounds of plastic in there, including 16 rice sacks.
[True story! To read more about the findings, see https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/whale-dies-88-pounds-plastic-philippines/ ]
Humpback whale feeding. By taking in a huge amount of water it can’t distinguish between prey and plastics
From now on, try to pick up three pieces of plastic every day and put them in a bin!
* GEOMAR: https://www.geomar.de/de/service/kommunikation/geomar-news-single-aktuell/article/dominiert-plastik-den-ozean-der-zukunft/
** GEOMAR: https://www.geomar.de/fileadmin/content/service/presse/public-pubs/flyer_plastikmuell_im_meer_web.pdf
*** Marine Pollution Bulletin: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13007984?fbclid=IwAR2XZ8U4za78o2D9dF0x3THFJ1IifhYoRq4Cu21pQsGVQXa6HMchoK0e82Y
Other Stories of whales killed by plastic: https://livelovefruit.com/whales-dying-from-plastic-pollution/
Arctic Whale by Barba: https://arcticwhale.no/
The Arctic Whale project by Barba is currently analysing the quantity of nanoplastic particles in blow and biopsy samples of humpback whales. Photos by Abigail Robinson and Andreas B. Heide