The dead sperm whale containing swathes of plastic debris, found on 19 November 2018.

The dead sperm whale, found on 19 November 2018.

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Sperm whale found with flip flops stuck in its belly

A sperm whale has washed up in Indonesia with nearly six kilogrammes of plastic in its digestive system.

The animal, measuring 31 feet, was found dead on 19 November on Kapota Island on the Wakatobi Archipelago, Southeast Sulawesi.

Inside its digestive system was 5.9 kilogrammes of waste, including plastic bags and cups, drinks bottles, raffia and even flip flops.

An investigation has been started by the Wakatobi Marine and Fisheries Community Academy, supported by a team from the Wakatobi Marine and Fisheries Office, the Wakatobi National Park, and WWF Indonesia.

In an announcement on social media, Whale Stranding Indonesia said it was unclear exactly which organs the plastic was in, due to the whale being in an advanced state of decomposition. 

The plastic found inside the whale's body. Image: Alfi Kusuma Admaja (AKKP-KKP).

The plastic found inside the whale's body. Image: Alfi Kusuma Admaja (AKKP-KKP).


WWF Indonesia said the following debris was found:

  • hard plastic (19 pieces, 140g)
  • plastic bottles (4 pieces, 150g)
  • plastic bags (25 pieces, 260g)
  • flip-flops (2 pieces, 270g)
  • pieces of string (3.26kg)
  • plastic cups (115 pieces, 750g)

In a statement provided to CNN, Dwi Suprapti, marine species conservation coordinator at WWF Indonesia, said, 'Although we have not been able to deduce the cause of death, the facts that we see are truly awful.'

It is reported that the whale's carcass will be buried.

One of the plastic sandals being weighed. Image: Pak Muhammad Irpan Sejati Tassakka (AKKP-KKP).

One of the plastic sandals being weighed. Image: Pak Muhammad Irpan Sejati Tassakka (AKKP-KKP).


All-pervasive plastic

The distressing images of the stranded whale are a stark reminder that plastic now reaches every part of the world's oceans.

Alex McGoran, a London NERC DTP PhD student based at Royal Holloway (University of London) and the Museum, studies microplastics in the UK's rivers. The animals she studies live much closer to home (her recent research found that 28% of fish living in the Thames Estuary have eaten microplastics), but she said this was an example of the sheer scale of the problem in marine ecosystems.

She says, ‘Different species will be exposed to different types and sizes of plastic. This could be due to different feeding techniques, prey preferences and mouth parts.

‘Whales can each much larger pieces plastic than fish can. Fish eat fibres because they are small enough to consume and might resemble polychaete worms and other prey.

‘Although our studies at the Museum have found that coffee cups are highly abundant in the London's River Thames, they are too large for fish to consume and they must fragment to a small size before they are available to eat.

‘It might be that a coffee cup is so small by comparison to a whale that it accidentally consumes them during normal feeding activities.' 

The body of the dead whale, just off Kapota Island.


Kapota Island

Kapota, where this sperm whale was found, is a small island off the larger Wangi-Wangi Island, and is covered in mangrove and bamboo forests.

It is part of the Wakatobi Marine National Park, home to an abundance of life including some of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world.

Indonesia is second only to China as the world's largest contributor to plastic pollution, and four of the country's rivers, rank among the top 20 most polluted rivers in the world.

What can I do to reduce plastic in rivers and oceans?

Small lifestyle changes help to reduce the plastic levels in rivers.

Don't flush sanitary products or any kind of wet wipe down toilets, even the ones which claim to be flushable.

Alex says, 'Flushable does not mean biodegradable. Flushing anything down the toilet other than human waste and toilet paper increases the chances of microplastics in the water system.'

Products for washing machines are also available that are designed to catch excess microfibres coming from clothes.

You can cut down on single-use plastic by purchasing reusable water bottles, coffee cups and lunchboxes.

Alex adds, 'There are many alternatives to plastic out there, although they may be less convenient. However, the more we avoid buying plastic products, the more companies will start to think about sustainable solutions.'