On October 30, 2023, a female calf Gervais’ beaked whale was reported by beachgoers to the N.C. Marine Mammal Stranding Network in shallow water in Emerald Isle. The team arrived at the beach and confirmed the animal had expired. Beaked whales are large, deep-diving marine mammals, and little is known about Gervais’ beaked whale social structure and life history. Live sightings are unusual because the normal habitat for these animals is at the Continental Shelf edge and beyond, and they spend most of their time underwater.
The dead stranded whale was removed from the surf with the help of the Emerald Isle Public Works Department and the Emerald Isle Police Department. The animal was transported to N.C. State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) where it was chilled overnight. The following morning, the animal was necropsied by marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, and students from various universities and organizations.
During the necropsy, the team examined every tissue of the young whale, and all appeared normal until the stomach was opened. In addition to some milk, a pentagonal plastic balloon was discovered, crumpled up and obstructing the passage of digesta to the rest of the gastrointestinal tract. Unfortunately, this young female whale died due to ingestion of plastic.
Approximately 125 marine mammals strand on North Carolina beaches each year, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and manatees. There are many reasons that animals wash ashore. Some include natural causes such as infectious diseases, parasites, cancers, and starvation. Some causes are from human interactions, including entanglement in fishing gear (active and ghost), ship and boat strikes, and ingestion of plastic.
The collaborative team examined every tissue of this young whale during the necropsy, and all appeared normal until the stomach was opened. In addition to some milk (indicating the female was a nursing calf), a pentagonal plastic balloon was discovered, crumpled up and obstructing the passage of digesta to the rest of the gastrointestinal tract.
The release urges people to consider using biodegradable alternatives instead of purchasing balloons to commemorate important life events. Biodegradable paper decorations are more eco-friendly and often less expensive. Though people often release balloons to remember and honor loved ones, the release urges people to consider other methods such as lighting a candle or scattering flower petals to commemorate their loved ones instead.
The release also urges people to dispose of balloons properly and carefully. It is important to make sure all gases have been removed from balloons prior to discarding to avoid them getting loose and posing an unnecessary and tragic danger, causing wildlife to starve and perish over time, as in the case of this unfortunate Gervais’ beaked whale.