Plastic may have been a miracle product once upon a time. We cannot deny the convenience that plastic and plastic products have brought into our lives. It could be produced easily without incurring much production cost, and thus, it led to the massive production of a lot of cheap items. That we now have a lot of inexpensive technology in our hands might be a result of plastic. But then, all has not been good!
Plastic wastes were never discarded properly and we have come to realize that plastic is not decomposed easily. The result: massive clogging and creation of waste that has caused a widespread loss of animal life. The problem is much more pronounced in marine life since most of the plastic products end up in the rivers and eventually flow into the ocean.
Whales are especially susceptible to problems in the ocean. We understood this back in 2011. In the Greek Island of Mykonos, a young whale had died. Now, it is not uncommon for whales to die. They may lose their way and due to a change in pressure, their hearts might fail. However, while the young whales might have died because of such a reason, later on, scientists conducted an operation on the dead whale to find out what could be the actual reason. What they found out surprised them. From the distended stomach of the whale came out about 100 plastic bags. We may not know what could be the reason for the death but this small discovery reveals that plastic was turning out to be a real menace.
Let’s dissect what the problem really is! Firstly, the plastic garbage that a whale ingests may not be intrinsically poisonous. But the problem goes deeper than that. Plastics do not contain any kind of nutrients. When a whale swallows these masses of garbage, it can be accidental or it might be that the whale had mistaken the substance to be some sort of prey. But this plastic then lodges in the digestive system of the whale and stays there, making the whale feel ‘full’. Due to the lack of nutrients in the plastic body, the whale may not ingest prey anymore. This will eventually lead to malnutrition and death of the whale. So, technically, plastic debris messes with their biology and their instinct of hunger.
2011 was not the only case of a whale with loads of plastic debris inside it. There had been one pilot whale found dead in Thailand after having consumed about eighty bags of plastic. In 2018, a sperm whale was found beached in eastern Indonesia and had consumed a lot of plastic litter. In Germany, a pair of sperm whales was found and the same story repeats: their distended stomach held plastic litter and car parts.
However, scientists claim that only plastic cannot be blamed for their deaths. Sperm whales tend to beach for a variety of reasons. If the ocean is polluted, then there is a possibility that toxins can disorient the whale and make them lose their direction. Or the noise pollution from ships can disorient them. It is also possible that when these sperm whales were migrating, they had shifted their direction in search of squid. This made them enter a shallow area which is not conducive to their survival and this had led to tragic heart failure. This explanation stands the tests too, as necropsies of the bodies found out that the whales had died due to heart failure. While the plastic debris present in their body was huge, these were young whales and there was not much harm done to their body.
Sperm whales are an endangered species due to the commercialized sport of whale hunting. However, since this sport has been banned, there has been a significant rise in the whale population in the marines. However, the threat of plastic remains and it just shows that we have not yet secured the lives of whales. If we really want to bring a change in this planet and make the lives of marine animals better, our first step should be to prevent the use and disposal of plastic products, especially in the oceans. It is for the best of our planet and our lives on this planet.