Today we celebrate World Whale Day! These amazing creatures are a magnificent component of our marine environment in the UK and beyond. However, threats from plastic pollution are putting the lives of these majestic animals in danger. Join us to explore the types of whales we can find on our shores, and how plastic pollution affects whales around the world.
Fin whales are the second largest species of whale in the world, after the blue whale, and can often be found in deep waters off the Eastern coast of the UK and Scotland. This species of whale can grow from 65 to 80 feet in length and weigh up to 80 tonnes! It is also extremely fast, reaching speeds of 20 knots or 23 miles per hour. If you’re out whale watching, be sure to look out for this species’ unique feature- the left side of its lower jaw is black, and its right side is white. This unusual colouring is a mystery of the sea, with scientists stumped on why the whale has adapted this way. Theories include the asymmetrical colouring being a way to herd schools of fish ready to be eaten, or a way to distinguish between blue whales and their own species in the dark depths of the ocean.
Minke whales are the most likely species to be spotted off the coast of the UK. They are the smallest species of baleen whale in the world (whales which use bristly baleen plates to filter food such as krill). These whales have an incredible method of “gulp feeding”. This tactic, also known as lunge feeding, requires the minke whale to stretch out the pleats in its throat to take a large mouthful of water. It then pushes the water back through its baleen plates, catching tasty krill and fish between the bristles. You can watch their fascinating way of feeding here.
Devastatingly, whales around the world are under threat from plastic pollution. In 2018, a sperm whale was stranded in Santorini, with 30kg of plastic in its stomach. In 2017, a pilot whale was found in Thailand with 80 plastic bags in its stomach. In 2019, a sei whale calf, young enough to be dependent on its mother’s milk, died after being emaciated from a plastic bag lodged in its throat. Its stomach was empty. There are countless stories of whales dying due to plastic marine litter. Heartbreakingly, if ingestion isn’t a big enough threat, whales are also dying from becoming entangled in plastic. In 2019, a pregnant minke whale, one of our precious UK species, drowned off the coast of Orkney; she had been entangled in plastic fishing lines. These instances are not isolated, the issue of plastic pollution is widespread and growing. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. If you’d like to learn more about the impact of plastic pollution on whales and dolphins, you can find the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s report here.
If we are really serious about protecting and celebrating the amazing whales that live in our oceans, we must tackle plastic pollution. Luckily, this is not a lost cause, there is always something you can do to help. You can help stop the stream of plastic heading towards the ocean by reducing your single-use plastic use, disposing of your waste responsibly, or joining us on one of our regular beach cleans. Dates and locations of our public beach cleans can be found here. We recommend swapping single-use plastic bottles and coffee cups for their reusable counterparts and buying package-free products where you can. More information on how to reduce your use of single-use plastic can be found on our website.