A whale calf died on an ENC beach from eating a balloon and an NC researcher says plastics are a danger to cetaceans
A live Gervais' Beaked Whale washed up in Emerald Isle earlier this month and died soon after, and researchers say a necropsy found the female calf died from eating a plastic or mylar balloon.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Mammalogy Research Curator Michael Cove said balloon releases are just one thing that humans do that can put whales and other creatures that live in the oceans in danger.
"Balloons, at some point they pop and then they drop someplace where we don't always have the opportunity to find them or figure out where they're landing,” he said, “And obviously the majority of our planet is marine environment, so, a lot of them do end up in the water.”
And Cove added, "This wasn't an incidental choking of this whale on this plastic bag that it ingested it accidentally. This whale presumably ate that plastic balloon because it thought it was a squid. And, unfortunately, that single balloon was enough to block up that calf and cause it to die. Which is a really sad reality for some of these cetaceans, or whales.”
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Beaked Whales are deep-diving marine mammals and sightings on or near the shore are rare. They live at the edge of the continental shelf and beyond and they spend most of their time under water.
In fact, Cove says the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has one of the largest collections of marine mammals in the southeastern U.S.but the Gervais’ Beaked Whale is seen ashore so rarely that they haven’t been able to study many specimens.
"We only have three specimens of the Gervais's beaked whales in our collection,” he explained, “So, that's a really small amount when you consider we have over 250 specimens of marine mammals.”
The whale died at around the same time an attempt to ban mass balloon releases in one eastern North Carolina community failed on a close vote and he hopes that the city will reconsider and others will ban such releases to protect the environment and wildlife.
"The intentional release of massive amounts of balloons is really just so detrimental and something so easy that we can do to mediate and mitigate some of these really harsh realities of what those plastics and mylar balloons do in the environment,” Cove said.
He added that it doesn’t pertain only to coastal communities, because inland rivers, lakes and streams all end up in the world’s oceans, carrying with their waters the detritus picked up along the way.
And that can include microplastics as well, which can also impact animal life on the oceanfront. "Sea birds and sea turtles and fishes are a lot more susceptible to the same types of blockages as they accumulate some of these microplastics, or small plastics, in the environment,” Cove said.
And the problem with plastics? He said, "Plastics exist on a geological time frame, right? They actually don't degrade as fast as we're producing them, and so the reality is we've got to reduce, reuse, recycle. And that's really the main pathway we have to preventing more plastics from being created and released out into the environment, unfortunately.”
The organization Oceana found records of almost 1,800 animals from 40 different species swallowing plastic or becoming entangled between 2009 and 2019.
Fishing gear can also be problematic for shore birds, sea turtles, and, yes, whales and other marine mammals. Cove said, "It's really the loss of these large-scale commercial fisheries nets that are causing entanglements in in the larger whales.”
"There are lots of these kind of ‘ghosts of fishing past’ floating around out in the sea and without some kind of concerted effort to remove some of the, flotsam out there of entangled nets and things like that, it can be very difficult to mitigate those impacts.”
And entanglements can slow the whales down, leaving them more susceptible to other marine creatures looking for a meal.
"They're the largest animals ever to live on our planet, so you don't really think of them as having predators, but they do succumb to predation from, in some cases, other whales. Like killer whales, orcas, are hunters, they hunt in pods. But also sharks, Cookie Cutter Sharks, Great White Sharks,” Cove said, “They can kind of course these animals until they're exhausted.”
Another problem for whales, particularly the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, is boat collisions. The Right Whales spend a lot of time at or close to the water surface, and they can also be tough to see from a boat because of their dark color and lack of a dorsal fin.
He says a poster child of the dangers boat strikes pose can be found at the museum; a North Atlantic Right Whale named “Stumpy” who was killed nearly 20 years ago.
"She was this healthy reproductive female that had everything to live for, had a calf growing and almost ready to be born, and she was unfortunately struck by a vessel,” Cove said, “And, so, when you look at her on exhibit, you could see actually the fracture in her skull of where she was struck.”
When Stumpy was hit and killed by a ship in 2004, researchers used her bones to show that ships need a speed limit within Right Whale protected habitats. After the reduced speeds were put in place in those areas, there were no whales killed the following year.
Movements to save the Right Whale and other species have been around for nearly 50 years; Greenpeace launched its anti-whaling campaign in 1975.
But the North Atlantic Right Whale remains on the endangered list, with only around 350 of them left. Cove said federal and global agencies are doing all the right things for preservation of the Right Whales, but like other mega fauna – or large animals – they are long lived but pretty slow to reproduce.
He said the, "Female has to make it over a decade into her life before she's large enough and able to reproduce, and then their gestation, their pregnancy, lasts over a year. So, these are long lived slow, population growth, animal.”
Marine life is facing other unprecedented challenges as well, from global warming and increasing sea temperatures, and Cove said reducing the use of plastics is something everyone can do to protect the majestic creatures that coast in the waters off our shores.