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The story of the plastic whale

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Three times the whale swam into the shallow cove on the island of Sotra, reported Sky News (UK).

When it first appeared, residents pushed it back out to sea.
The next time it was the fire brigade.

But when it returned for a third time, exhausted and lethargic, the local marksman was summoned to euthanise the beast.

Jan Vindenes first saw the whale from his house 50 metres above the cove. He was part of the desperate effort to save it.

"It didn't move much, it was just lying there breathing," he told Sky News.
"It was too tired to swim. It was trying to find a place for his final rest. He came here to die.
"When it was shot, it was an emotional moment. Everybody felt sad."

But for local scientists, the whale's death was an opportunity.
It was only the second Cuvier's beaked whale ever seen in Norwegian waters and the local natural history museum wanted the skeleton for its whale hall.

Hanneka Meijer, the curator for Bergen University, oversaw the work on the quayside to remove the flesh from the bones.

The animal was six metres long and weighed just under two tonnes, well below average.
"We measured the layer of blubber underneath the skin," she said. "It was only a few centimetres, which isn't very thick. There should have been more fat."

It was only when they opened up the whale's stomach, in which they found 30 large pieces of plastic, that they realised why.

"That's when it hit us," said Ms Meijer. "We have a plastic whale."

Back at the University of Bergen, associate professor Terje Lislevand showed me the plastic laid out on the floor of his lab.
One piece was a flimsy sheet more than two metres long.

But most were plastic bags, some still with ghostly writing which gave away their origins.
One used to contain a chicken from Ukraine, another carried ice cream from Denmark.
There was also the outer wrapper from a six-pack of Walkers crisps, the UK copyright and recycling symbol still visible.

I asked Professor Lislevand whether he thought it was a necessary use of plastic.
"Personally I don't, no," he said.
"But of course it's not only the producer here, it's also us, the consumers. We also have to think about what we're doing."

Walker's declined to be interviewed, but issued this statement:
"We understand that plastics in our oceans is a problem that requires urgent attention and that everyone needs to play their part.

"We are looking at the design of our packaging, for example by creating biodegradable packaging. We haven't quite cracked this yet, but aren't giving up."

The story of the plastic whale - Plasthvalen in Norwegian - went viral, with people around the world horrified that recognisable pieces of plastic had resulted in the death of such a beautiful animal.

This is not a one-off
The death of the Bergen whale wasn't a one-off.
Sky News has discovered that another Cuvier's beaked whale died on the Isle of Skye with huge numbers of plastic bags in its stomach.

But the scientists that discovered the animal at the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) haven't spoken publicly about their findings until now.

Dr Andrew Brownlow, a veterinary pathologist for SMASS, said four kilograms of plastic bags and sheeting had filled the whale's stomach, twisted into its intestine and completely blocked its digestive system.

There were black bin liners, carrier bags and zipped freezer bags.

Dr Brownlow said: "For every one of these pieces it is possible that there would have been some form of human action that could have stopped it from getting into the marine environment."

Every year, the SMASS team carries out 70 to 100 post-mortems on marine animals, which provide vital clues to the health of the whole ecosystem.

They occasionally find plastic in the stomachs of marine life, but never before in such quantities.

"If you assume that what this whale has done is sample a small section of ocean, then this is astonishing," Dr Brownlow said.

"This was an animal that went to places that are very difficult for us to go and sample and sadly paid pretty much the ultimate price for that."

Why should we care?
Whales are messengers from the deep, bringing to the surface evidence of just how much plastic there is out of sight.

Dr Natacha Aguilar de Soto, from the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands, has been studying beaked whales in the deep waters off the island of El Hierro for well over a decade.
"We think of plastic as a floating matter," she said. "But it sinks - 90 percent is in the water column.
"Then beaked whales are exposed to it."

The Cuvier's is one of 22 known species of beaked whales.

They dive for an hour or more, reaching depths of up to 3 km in their hunt for food - the depth of five Shard buildings placed end-to-end.

At such extreme depths the water is completely dark; they use echolocation - sound beams - to find squid and gelatinous creatures.

"This is probably the problem," Dr Aguilar de Soto said. "They will have an echo very similar to plastic bags.
"We are killing animals with that plastic."

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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