Gray whale dies bringing us a message — with stomach full of plastic trash

By May 3, 2010November 20th, 202350 Comments

When news that a dead gray whale had washed up on the shores of Puget Sound in West Seattle recently, its stomach full of human trash, I immediately thought of a series of stunning but horrific photographs I had recently experienced — Seattle photographer Chris Jordan’s work on the albatrosses of Midway Island who unintentionally kill their newborns feeding them our brightly colored garbage.

The gray whale was dead, but had been in good health. A bottom feeder, it had ingested about 20 plastic bags, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, and other cast-off bits of our lives. It was the fifth dead gray whale to be found in two weeks on Puget Sound, according to the Cascadia Research Collective.  Several of those whales were malnourished. The photo above, by Cascadia Research of Olympia, WA,  shows researchers near the whale.

Jordan’s photographs show image after image of albatross chicks who have died after their parents have flown out over the ocean, bringing back deadly “meals” stuffed in their own beaks. The adult birds cannot distinguish between the plastic floating in the ocean and real food they need to feed their babies. As Jordan writes on his Web site:

These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.

Researchers at Cascade Research don’t believe the trash killed the whale, but they do note that the sheer amount is alarming.

It did clearly indicate that the whale had been attempting to feed in industrial waters and therefore exposed to debris and contaminants present on the bottom in these areas. Gray whales are filter feeders that typically feed on the bottom and suck in sediment in shallow waters and filter the contents to strain out the small organisms that live there. They have been known to accumulate material including rocks and other debris from the bottom ingested in this process. While debris has been found in the stomachs of some previous gray whales found dead in Puget Sound, this appeared to be a larger quantity than had ever been found previously.

We know that giant plastic garbage patch is out there in the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas. We can’t see it from here. And even when you get close, it’s apparently hard to fathom. Talking with Chris Jordan, who I met at the Journalism that Matters Conference in Seattle, he said when he began the work that led to the Midway Island project, he first thought to photograph the garbage patch itself. But when he looked at it, it was difficult to visualize, to bring home to peoples’ lives. It was opaque and murky at the edges. It was deep and its size difficult to bring home. And his work  — if you spend any time on his Web site — is all about bringing home the message in ways that are meaningful to our lives.

So he ended up finding the message in the bodies of thousands of dead and decaying baby birds on Midway Island, birds who had died eating colorful bits of that garbage patch. And that’s where the message of what choices we’re making really comes homes.

Perhaps that dead gray whale — with its 20 plastic bags, and its golf ball, and assorted plastic pieces — might symbolize some of our choices for us. Might bring it home.

That whale, the fifth to die in Puget Sound in two weeks, is a chance to think about it. Let’s not miss the opportunity.

Rita Hibbard

Rita Hibbard



  • full name required says:

    I would love to use this piece in my research paper, I’m trying to relate habits to consequences, does anyone know the author of this? I’m new to this site. thanks!

    • Jason Alcorn says:

      Hi, so glad you want to use it in your paper! The author of this post is Rita Hibbard.

    • fDave Carlson says:

      Which zoological statistician is now calculating the LD50 and LD90 for this “typical” plastic?
      And the extinction of the wandering albatross? 10 years?
      Extinction of the Grey Whale- 20 years?
      Thank you Peoples Republic of China. THEY DONT CARE.

    • Martha Phelps says:

      So sorry to hear about this whale or anything else that swims in our waters, my son helps with beach sweep here on the Crystal Coast and so very proud of him doing this…I plan on helping out myself…It is so hard to believe some people are so cruel. The person who did this terrible act should fill the same results!!!!!! I am so mad about this.

  • Zeek Zimbo says:

    This mess is the result of our poor leadership. I see no end in sight without new vision of the future, which is not part of the leaders of the nations of the world at this time. Questions like “what kind of methods will create our housing, transportation, and energy for the next hundred years? Until we have a lucid goal we will consume the planet till it is uninhabitable. I would suggest we vote electronically and do away with the corrupted leaders of the world. Let the people who are involved with the issues come up with solutions that everyone can vote on, do away with money driven politics. Till then we will only watch as the earth is ravaged by irresponsible humans. Drag lines rape the sea bottoms every day destroying all sea life to supply cheap fish. How is this possible? Who is responsible? All of us!

    • Darren johnson says:

      I agree we are all to blame… We can cry about what our government is or isn’t doing but at the end of the day we all consume and will keep consuming because its in our nature and we are to far removed from our natural world and its reality .
      Do we have the answer or the commitment to make a difference as a whole or will it be a fight by the few , a spectacle for the masses to watch on and wonder why nobody does anything about this ?

  • Donna Lynn Fraser says:

    I had to take a few moments before I could comment . I’ve seen the video of the albatross’ macabre nesting grounds and the hundreds of beached dolphins and whales from naval testing and epidemic of deaths to cows and goats from trying to digest plastic grocery bags. If there were a way to broadcast these horrific pictures onto every tv screen and cell phone around the world at the same time would it have an impact?

    • Kimberly says:

      I do believe it would have an impact on people. The problem is that these huge corporations have no sole and dont care at all what happens to our planet. They are destroying it every day just to make more money. There will never be enough money in the world for them to be satisfied, and unfortunately, these corporations make up a much larger ‘mafia’ which includes most media worldwide. When the average person wants to do a story on things like this, it never airs. It’s sad.
      Ghandi once said: “Be the change you want to see in this world”
      And that is what I try to do myself. I try to limit my carbon footprint everyday. And this is the action that needs to be taken by each individual in order to overcome this situation.

      • Hannah says:

        I agree with you, I find that the problem lies in all of us. It’s easy to blame large corporations, however just like the rest of us, corporations are around so that the people working within them can make a living.

        Unfortunately, the general demand is for cheaply made products rather than those that support our environment. If businesses cannot make money off of eco-friendly products, they cannot survive. I have seen numerous eco-friendly businesses and initiatives go under because people just don’t care. It doesn’t affect them directly, and so always boils down to the dollar sign.

        The more public support that there will be for environmentally-friendly businesses (and not just those who pose as such), the more they can flourish. Unfortunately, I think we are still a long ways away.

    • Gaia Liotta says:

      I think you raised an excellent point. Globally we are visually responsive. I think they only way to change the issue would be to confront people visually, which , has begun. Sadly I think the American culture is visually repressive ( look at how much we saw in the Iraq war).

      This goes deeper then individuals this is about community practice. People need to start tracing how and where these waste lands are going into our ocean.

      I think its not a matter of changing social practices. Perhaps if we pressed people to view plastic bags as toxic waste then we could snuff this issue out.

  • This is really awful. I hope things have improved from 3 years ago.

  • derek says:

    This seems a little alarmist to me. Whale populations are increasing aren’t they?

    • L Tate says:

      Your point is??? The whale population is growing so it’s OK if a few die from the garbage we throw away haphazardly? Give your head a shake.

      • Jina Bostick says:

        The point is that we need to be more careful with how we dispose of our trash. The whale population is still close to being endangered by whaling companies from Japan and Russia, and some of the north countries of Europe. What if someone said that about you… that it would be ok for you to die because the human population is growing…??? What callousness and disregard for mother nature you have!

      • Jennette says:

        You only say that because you don’t see that trash in the ocean as a threat to YOUR well being, which makes you beyond blind. What makes the human species more important than any other? An upright body position and the ability to be oblivious to the fact that our planet sustains all life? What gives you the right to okay this whales death? I hope you don’t reproduce.

      • Common Sense says:

        You need to give your head a shake!! It is not OK for ‘some’ to die bc the population is growing! Are you going to say that about humans too?! Get a brain and some cooth……aslo get some respect for other living creatures.

      • Lilian D says:

        I’m not sure if you’re seriously being ignorant or you’re trying to make a satiric comment to somebody else…

      • bulshit says:

        i came here to see the contents of the stomach. no such photos . BOO

    • mama G says:

      not the point…that Texas-sized floating plastic garbage pile is KILLING living creatures…why hasn’t the international community tried cleaning it up?

    • Anne Stivacti says:

      Would you kindly remove your cranium from your arsehole!

  • DaniElizabeth says:

    Alright. I’m so appalled by the “why does it matter that a few whales have died.” “The whale population is growing isn’t it?”.

    The planet and species are dying from OUR pollution! Disgusting…

  • Denise Williams says:

    I do agree that plastic is over-used and dangerous in many ways. Everything in the natural world is meant to break down, erode or decompose…from mountains to leaves to animals and humans. Plastic was designed to not break down….messing with the natural order. Yup, cloth bags, re-usable water bottles, it’s all good.

    But is it also possible that all these marine deaths have anything to do with Korea testing nuclear weapons under water? Could any of it be connected to the oil and gas spills whether in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else? That would mean calling governments to task for their short-sighted policies and laws that support industry, regardless of the consequences (Fukushima nuclear plant, Monsanto, the businesses that exploited the salt caverns in Louisiana where the sink hole is); all for the sake of money.

    Yup, plastic is a problem…and it’s not the only problem. We’re being called to wake up on a lot of fronts, but it may already be too late. What reassures me is that the Earth will continue. She may just have to get rid of this lethal virus called human beings before she can get well again.

    • kyla botting says:

      i don’t think it is about nuclear testing underwater, the facts are that we are finding OUR trash in these beautiful animals stomachs…also, i know the Navy dumps their waste into the water,how ironic is that? and don’t even get me started on Cruise Ships…the amount of waste is staggering. What we need to do now is figure out a way to contain this massive strip of floating plastic and put in place stricter laws about dumping our waste into the oceans. Until then, nothing is going to change.

  • Battiste says:

    The story is just sad, but the comments saying “the population is growing, it doesn’t matter if a few die” are just inhuman.

    The population of humans are doubling every month, so does it matter if we die? We share this world but other people, they think, eat, love, and survive just as much as we do.

    This story should be more public.

  • This picture is a few years old, but the problem continues.

    Yes, we need new attitudes in our world leaders but world leaders come from the general population, which is *us.*

    I never go to the beach without spending time picking up trash.

    Pay attention to recycling and pick up the litter.

    Donate to environmental efforts and publicize the good that we as human sentient beings can do to care better for our planet. It’s the only home we have.

  • Kathy Morse says:

    Humans to are dying from plastic (man-made estrogen), one of the contributors to cancer. If we are willing to contaminate ourselves seems like there’s not much concern for wild life. Life as a whole is not respected and considered sacred. Sadly it has a trickle down affect.

  • Douglas Scriven says:

    This horrendous, we are messing with our food chain

  • Georgann Putintsev says:

    Maybe we need to go back to reusable Glass Containers for our Milk & have recyclable plastic containers for our Water. So when our Garbage is put on barges… are those corporations just dumping it out at Sea? Covanta Energy turns waste into Energy. As we as humans decrease our usage of these non-biodegradeable containers, we should also be responsible for our own community GARBAGE. Meaning it can’t be shipped across State or County lines. Generation Law: Clean Water, Clean Earth, Clean Air and Clean Fire/Energy … for all future generations of the bio-diversity of nature. We are the Caretakers of this Blue dot.

  • Sam Mihulet says:

    How STUPID of an article… no one force feeds a whale, if its too stupid to know the difference between food or trash that’s the whales fault.. we cant stop everyone in the world from dumping trash in the ocean. its a vicious circle of life who cares!

    • Jane Land says:

      Thanks to individuals like you, Sam, these things happen. It is not the whale’s fault, but yours and others similar to you. If something here is STUPID, that is you, not the article. I hope that before any other animal species vanishes from Earth, people like you will do it, vanish with your trash. Geeeshhh….

      • Molly smith says:

        Thank you for responding to that ignorant human. I can only hope that his type vanishes before the animals of the earth do. Animals in nature eat what is abundant, in this case trash. For somebody to use the word “stupid” on an animal like this intelligent species, is clearly the one who lacks brain power. My children know better, and I hope their generation is enlightened due to the unfortunate circumstances we face today. Regardless of wreckless parenting or bad examples.

    • Anabel Leigh says:

      You’re kidding right?

      While you are correct with your statement that no one force feeds a whale, what right do we have to be dumping our trash into their natural habitat. It is ignorant statements like yours from narrow minded people like yourself that will destroy this planet.

      So tell me this, when the day comes that you are no longer able to drink water, or breath air because of pollution caused by humans….will you care then, or will you attribute it to the vicious circle of life?

    • Bob says:

      What a moron.

    • DiannBradfordGentle required says:

      It’s people like you who don’t care about saving our animals and the planet from pollution! You only care about yourself but of course that’s an assumption. Maybe you don’t even care about yourself either. Counselling on compassion for nature, mankind and “YOURSELF” might be what is needed here.

    • Derek says:

      I think we should take Sam to a buffet that has a mix of delicious healthy foods, but within this buffet are poisonous plants/animals. Lets see if Sam is smart enough to figure out which will kill him and which will not.
      If he eats something deadly and dies then according to his logic it will be his own fault and just part of the “viscous circle of life.”

    • Stacie says:


      If the whale is too stupid? I can’t believe people who say stuff like that. You are clearly the ignorant one, trash is a man-made issue, not a natural one. And to say who cares and then site the circle of life is even more ignorant. Species dying off as the result of pollution effects many other animals in said cycle (even the ones that you seem to think are intelligent!)

      Your ignorance is appalling. Try to inform yourself before posting on a public forum where you show your idiocy for the word to see. I’m embarrassed for you. Read a book.

    • Chris says:

      I hope that your comment was meant to ignite peoples indignation about how the human race are slobs, and not how comletely oblivious and moronic you might be….hope you don’t procreate if its the later, genes like that need to elimated

  • Eloise Bates says:

    Sam, your remarks are heartless in the least. If you are really concerned about stupid look into a mirror.

  • Anna Thomson says:

    Litter? Yes, we need to do better. But who deliberately feeds on trash? And then feeds it to their kids? Birds and fish are dumb. There’s only so much society can do…

    • Mark Dobinson says:

      ?? seriously??…you are an idiot…. Animals do not know what ‘trash’ or ‘plastic’ is. Do the world a favour and chow down on some toilet pucks and a glass of draino.

    • Lynda Knight says:

      Where do you think all that trash comes from??? Your grocery store is full of ‘trash’ foods, wrapped in plastic, bottled in plastic, and given to the children by ignorant people such as yourself. Why do you think there are so many SICK HUMANS??? We have doctors to repair the damage in most cases, but often children live with preventable conditions because parents are too lazy to prepare fresh, real food aka fruits and vegetables (no packaging required, no toxic trash left) An animal cannot strain our GARBAGE out of their food supply. We are the ones putting it there. Did you pass the 3rd grade???? Whales live on plankton, they open their mouths and whatever is in the water filters in with the plankton. Birds must digest food by swallowing sand (filled with bits of plastic thanks to humans) It is ignorance such as yours that has caused this mess. Society can get off of it’s lazy ass, and go clean up the mess!

      • Albert says:

        Its not because of the plastic!!! -it because you do not throw the rubbish in the right place! = The BIN !

        • Christine says:

          Umm.. no. Where do you think the TRASH in the BIN ENDS UP?? The only way to prevent plastic is to NOT USE PLASTIC!! Seriously People!!! Wake up and look at what the hell you are doing to your planet!!!!!!!! Use your own cup for coffee and fresh juices! Use your own bags for shopping!! It is not that hard to do!

    • Mia says:

      Am I the only one that is terrified of people like Anna? I hope people like you never reproduce.

  • Jennifer Devitt says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the process of natural selection weeded out heartless individuals like some of those who have left derogatory comments on this article rather than grey whales and other marine species who inadvertently dine on our indestructible rubbish? It seems they are unaware that, for instance, few species see a full spectrum of colours, as humans do: naturally, animal vision has evolved to fit the needs of survival – of which the basic need is food. Unsurprisingly, this would not include, say, a bright orange or blue plastic bottle or bag, which might simply appear in the grey spectrum. An albatross or cetacean specialist would have the answer.

    Wouldn’t it also be nice if the people who wrote such comments would engage their brains before tapping the keys on their computer keypad?

    Shame on them.

  • Geno Anderson says:

    This is simply gut wrenching and worst, disgusting! Humans are by far the worst predators on this planet, and no matter how much stories like these surface, we simply continue on with our lives, oblivious in some cases, to the carnage that we’re causing while destroying both the atmosphere as well it’s most precious assets! Whales, sharks, elephants rhinos, we will continue until there is nothing left but a depleted planet of all of it’s needed nutrients, and no animals remaining except us!!

  • Juanita Ludke says:

    I wonder how much of what is out there came from the tsunami in Japan and how much is from stupid littering people in the USA.

  • Travis says:

    aslong as it’s legal to produce plastic bottles, and plastic bags people are going to use them, because on the mass people are ignorant sad but plainly apparent as that is what is happening….so it’s obviously what is true. These types of things need to be controlled by enlightened people in government positions.

  • Robin C says:

    Plastic is a real issue alright. However, the radiation it the real culprit. Come on, think about all those sea animals eating irradited food and being exposed to radiation while swimming. Deformities, death they are creating a dead sea…… and STILL are not working internationally to clean up Fukashima. This should be what our world is focusing on right now.

  • Lisa Choiniere says:

    I am appalled at the ignorance of some of the comments to this story. Whales are too stupid to tell the difference between food and trash? Gray whales are bottom feeders not plankton feeders. Not all whales eat the same thing so before y’all go spouting off about how they are getting garbage in their bellies, KNOW THE FACTS.

    While they are sifting the bottom for krill and crustaceans the garbage down there gets sucked in too. They don’t have a “garbage filter.” People ARE putting their garbage in the bins but the garbage is being dumped into the ocean by cruise ships and barges.

    This is a horrible tragedy and people need to start thinking of solutions to the garbage problem. For instance, people need to stop being so lazy and start recycling and not just throwing everything away.

    My heart hurts for the loss of all of these animals through no fault of their own. They are being murdered at an alarming rate. So next time you throw something away, think about if it can be recycled or if you are going to be a lazy ass and murder some more of the most majestic creatures on earth.

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