"It’s highly likely they are eating or getting tangled in the huge amount of plastic in the area," one scientist said

By Claudia Harmata
October 28, 2019 03:35 PM

While conducting research for the Ocean Cleanup’s Aerial Expedition, scientists spotted whales swimming through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the first time.

In a new study published in the journal Marine Biodiversity, researchers shared their findings from the survey and documented the sightings.

“It is well known that ocean plastics pose a threat to marine mammals, with many cases of entanglement and ingestion interactions being recorded worldwide,” they wrote. “Here, we describe the first cetacean sightings made within the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of plastic waste in the world and is located between Hawaii and California. There is an estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic floating there, according to a study published in 2018. Four other “gyres” similar to this one can be found across the Earth’s oceans.

A garbage collector floating through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
| Credit: The Ocean Clean UP

“The ecological implications of such pollution hotspots remain poorly assessed,” the researchers wrote, explaining why they undertook the project. “For instance, no dedicated aerial surveys have been undertaken to record marine mammals within these areas and/or identify local impacts of plastic debris on vertebrates.”

With this in mind, the group flew over the patch on two separate occasions, using sensors and their own observations to create a “map” of the plastic from the sky.

While on these flights, they spotted at least 14 cetaceans swimming through the debris in total. This included three sperm whales — two of which were a mother and her very young calf — three beaked whales and two baleen whales.

“For the first time, we found proof of whales and dolphins in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which means it’s highly likely they are eating or getting tangled in the huge amount of plastic in the area,” one of the scientists, Chandra Salgado Kent, wrote in her own post on The Conversation.

This past March, a dead Cuvier’s beaked whale was discovered by a marine biologist in the Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Meanwhile, last winter, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic, including flip flops, in its stomach.

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The Ocean’s Cleanup scientists said that some of the debris they documented during their survey was found close to the whale sightings, and urge further research to determine the exact impact on marine life.

“Many surface drifting plastics were also detected, including fishing nets, ropes, floats and fragmented debris,” the researchers wrote of their surveys of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “Some of these objects were close to the sighted mammals, posing entanglement and ingestion risks to animals using the GPGP as a migration corridor or core habitat.”

“Our study demonstrates the potential exposure of several cetacean species to the high levels of plastic pollution in the area,” they added, warning that, “further research is required to evaluate the potential effects of the GPGP on marine mammal populations inhabiting the North Pacific.”