Dead Sperm Whale With 220 Pounds of Plastic in Its Stomach Found on Beach: 'It Was Desperately Sad'

A sperm whale found beached on Luskentyre Beach, Scotland, last week had a huge ball in its stomach made up of 220 pounds of human junk—including bundles of rope, sections of net and plastic debris.

"It was desperately sad, especially when you saw the fishing nets and debris that came out of its stomach," local resident Dan Parry told the BBC.

The whale was a young 20-tonne male found on the sandbanks of Harris, a Hebridean island off the northwest coast of Scotland. It was only dead for two days before it was located by members of the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme, however, it was starting to decompose "incredibly quickly"—a process sped up by the heat retained by its blubber.

"Just on our way back from a stunning (it was on Luskentyre beach), fascinating, briefly alarming (it sort of exploded) and shameful (there was a load of marine debris in its stomach) sperm whale necropsy on Harris this weekend," the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme, a part of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) in the U.K., said in a Facebook post.

"By the time we got to it had been dead for 48 hours and pretty much most of the guts blew out of the side when we stuck a knife in it."

Sperm Whale Stranding
A sperm whale was found beached on Luskentyre beach, Scotland, on Thursday. Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme

Because of the whale's colossal size and the fragile dune ecosystem of the surrounding area, the team had to perform the autopsy on site. Members of the Coastguard and Western Isles Council were called in to help.

The post-mortem procedure revealed that 220 pounds of marine debris had become stuck in its stomach, which looked as though it had been there for some time, said the conservationists. The ball included plastic cups, bags, gloves, packing straps and tubing as well as bundles of rope and sections of net. But the litter ball hadn't appeared to have caused the whale any acute damage.

"The animal wasn't in particularly poor condition, and whilst it is certainly plausible that this amount of debris was a factor in its live stranding, we actually couldn't find evidence that this had impacted or obstructed the intestines," said the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme.

The conservation group added: "This amount of plastic in the stomach is nonetheless horrific, must have compromised digestion, and serves to demonstrate, yet again, the hazards that marine litter and lost or discarded fishing gear can cause to marine life."

Sperm whale
The whale was so large, the necropsy had to be performed on site. Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme

As plastic continues to permeate the natural environment, reaching even the world's most remote waters, it is becoming an increasingly large problem for marine life. Earlier this year, research looking at microplastics in the digestive tracts of marine animals discovered bits of plastic in all animals studied. 84 percent of the plastic was synthetic, originating from sources such as clothing and fishing nets, and the remaining 16 percent came from fragments of litter like food and drink packaging. This epidemic is only likely to get worse as, by 2050, it is predicted there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

The Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme said the stranding goes to show plastic pollution is a "global issue caused by a whole host of human activities."

"This whale had debris in its stomach which seemed to have originated from both the land and fishing sectors, and could have been swallowed at any point between Norway and the Azores," the group said.

The team is continuing to investigate how the whale ended up with so much junk in its stomach.

Sperm Whale Necropsy
The post mortem procedure revealed 220 pounds of marine debris in its stomach. Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme
Netting
Plastic rope and debris found in the whale's stomach. Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme
Netting
A section of net, which was found in the whale's stomach. Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme
Dead Sperm Whale With 220 Pounds of Plastic in Its Stomach Found on Beach: 'It Was Desperately Sad' | Tech & Science