7 Strange Things Swallowed by Whales

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Some whales are adventuresome eaters. Killer whales, for example, occasionally supplement their normal diets of fish with more unusual fare (more on that below). But other kinds of whales, particularly the baleen variety, end up with an exotic array of objects in their guts, too, because they feed by indiscriminately sucking up huge amounts of water and filtering out the shrimp, plankton, and small fish. Below are seven strange things found in the stomachs and guts of whales—some inanimate, some living, some amusing, and some just sad.

1. A Golf ball

Image courtesy of Lotus Head, used under Creative Commons license. 

A 1994 episode of Seinfeld touched on golf ball-consuming sea mammals. But in 2008, when a golf ball was discovered in the bowels of a beached gray whale in Washington, there was nothing George Constanza or an actual marine biologist could do. On TV, the problematic golf ball was lodged in the whale’s blowhole—“hole in one,” as Kramer says. But in real life, the golf ball was found amongst the whale’s innards. The whale was dead on arrival; scientists don't believe the digested golf ball was related to the mammal's passing.

2. Sweatpants

Image courtesy of Punkt 8, used under Creative Commons license. 

When they're not up for real attire, people often opt for sweatpants. And when the same people are too lazy to properly throw out the trash, garbage—like unwanted sweatpants—ends up in the ocean getting swallowed by whales. The same whale that swallowed a golf ball not far from Seattle was also found with sweatpants in its paunch.

3. Polar Bears

Image courtesy of Alan Wilson, used under Creative Commons license. 

Typically, killer whales subsist on diets of fish; some even dine on baleen whales, penguins, and smaller marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and otters. Sometimes, though, the whales are found with digested pieces of polar bears, moose, reptiles, and many other animals in their guts.

4. Endangered species

Photo courtesy of PMXused under Creative Commons license. 

Critically endangered European eels spend most of their lives in freshwater. But when they fully mature and become sexually aroused, they return to the warm ocean waters of the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic to spawn and then die. Unfortunately, not all of them make it to that final moment of coital bliss. Some are gobbled up by several different species of toothed whales in the eastern Atlantic.

5. Greenhouse sheeting

Image courtesy of Quistnix, used under Creative Commons license. 

Giant greenhouses in Almeria, Grenada, and even Iceland are responsible for growing the tomatoes that stock the produce aisles of the world’s major supermarkets. They’re also responsible for the tons and tons of plastic sheeting increasingly found mangled inside the stomachs of beached whales. When the plastic sheets used to trap the heat of the sun and help nourish vegetables aren’t thrown away properly, they inevitably end up in the waters surrounding Europe, and eventually inside gray whales.

6. Cigarette butts

Image courtesy of Silly Putty Enemies, used under Creative Commons license. 

Loads of cellulose acetate filters, or cigarette butts, have been found in the stomachs of beached whales.

7. More trash

Image courtesy of Bengt Nyman, used under Creative Commons license. 

A gray whale recently found deceased on the beach of a small island off the coast of the Netherlands had dozens of plastic bags, nine meters of rope, two long pieces of garden hose, a couple of flower pots, and a plastic spray canister in its stomach. It's an increasingly common occurrence: whales stuffed full of human garbage.