A Whale Of Problem For Whales – Plastic Bags and Balloons

You can quickly run out of superlatives when talking about whales.

They are the largest, loudest, longest-lived and most voracious animals on the planet.  In particular, the sperm whale is one of the most magnificent.

Sperm whales have the biggest brain of any animal – a massive 18 pounds compared to our human brain of only 3 pounds.

At 65 feet long, they are perhaps the largest predators that have ever existed.

They spend 90 percent of their lives at great depths, able to dive deeper than any other animal – sometimes reaching over 3000 feet or almost 2 miles and staying under water for more than 2 hours at a time.

The sounds sperm whales make, which scientists believe are communications, can reach well over 200 decibels – as loud as a jet engine and powerful enough to be heard six miles away.

It has been documented that they can live as long as 230 years.  This means that sperm whales may be swimming in the sea now that were alive before Victoria ascended the throne or Captain Cook discovered Australia.  Bowhead whales, their close cousins, live to even greater ages — up to 300 years, making them the planet’s longest living mammals.

To sustain itself, a sperm whale must consume up to 1,000 squid a day — that’s approximately 1,100 pounds of calamari!

Although it has a 10 foot long jaw studded with 42 enormous teeth (each up to 2 feet long), it does not bite its prey.  Instead, it sucks up its food like a giant vacuum cleaner, swallowing squid whole.

And what does research show that sperm whales often Hoover up?

Plastic bags and balloons.

As an example, over 1,700 pounds of plastic (much of it supermarket bags) recently was found clogged in the stomach of a whale that died on the French coast.

Living so long, and being such large consumers of what is in the sea, sperm whales give us a good picture of the changing health of our oceans.

What changes have we seen in sperm whales over the past 200 years?

Well, in less than a whale generation (remember they can live to age 230) it is estimated that their population has been reduced from 2 million to 360,000.

For many years, hunting had a significant impact on the sperm whale population.  Hunting sperm whales is now widely banned, but unfortunately our current activities create longer-lasting dangers.

One of the greatest problems faced by any marine species is the sheer amount of plastic (especially plastic bags and balloons*) in the ocean.   The fact that plastic bags and balloons don’t biodegrade only compounds the problem.  For decades, if not centuries, the plastic just breaks downs into smaller and smaller fragments that enter the food chain for sea life — and eventually the food chain for humans.

By virtue of its position at the top of the marine food chain, the sperm whale is affected more than most any other creature by the pollution we dump in the sea.

It is sadly ironic that a simple plastic food bag that holds food to sustain our lives, or a party balloon that is meant to bring short-term joy, can have a powerfully long-term negative impact elsewhere – causing unnecessary death for generations of whales and other marine animals.

My family and I are again fortunate to be on Martha’s Vineyard, and I am back to my daily beach walks.  What am I finding again?

Plastic bags and balloons.

It was raining here yesterday, so I am caught up on my clean ocean reading and writing.  An article by the Daily Mail from the U.K. titled “Sperm Whales – How Plastic Bags Are Poisoning The Planet’s Greatest Predators” provided much of the inspiration and information for this post.  The full article can be found at the following link:


The wind blew hard yesterday, which means that on my walk this morning I am likely to find many plastic bags and balloons on the beach.  If everyone did just a little bit to help, maybe some day I will not be able to take pictures like the one below (taken at South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard).

photo 2

Plastic in the ocean is truly a whale of a problem, but small actions, taken together, can create whale-sized, scalable change.

Help us Clean Up Oceans!


* During the 2011 International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers collected 120,450 pounds of bags from beaches in the United States.  For more information about plastic in our oceans please click on the following click:  Facts About Ocean Pollution


Preston McSwain can be found during the day working as the Managing Partner and Founder at Fiduciary Wealth Partners.  To see more of his posts about his day job, investments, and on issues such as clean oceans, and education, connect with him through the following social media links:


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One Comment on “A Whale Of Problem For Whales – Plastic Bags and Balloons

  1. Pingback: Will Ocean Plastic Outweigh Fish? | Clean Oceans

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