Viewed from space, the Earth looks like a blue marble.  Its oceans are, far and away, its defining visual characteristic.  They are home to the largest animals that have ever lived: whales.  Some whale species favour surface waters, while other dive to extraordinary depths.  The deepest diver of all is Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, a species which dives so deeply, in fact, that it is rarely ever seen by humans, except when the occasional individual beaches itself or a corpse is washed ashore.

Left: Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory; right: Image Credit: University Museum of Bergen
Left: Image Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory; right: Image Credit: University Museum of Bergen

One of the most recent live strandings of this near-mythical creature occurred in January 2017 on the island of Sotra, close to the city of Bergen, on the southwestern coast of Norway.  The whale was still clinging to life when discovered, but it was in very poor health and suffering greatly.  After several unsuccessful attempts to coax it back out to sea failed, the difficult decision was made to put the poor creature out of its misery.

The whale’s sad death gave scientists and marine researchers an unprecedented opportunity to try to work out what exactly had happened to this Cuvier's Beaked Whale.  A post-mortem was carried out, and the reason for the whale’s distress soon became horrifyingly apparent.  In its stomach were found at least 30 plastic bags.  With so much undigestible plastic clogging its digestive tract, the whale had little room left for food.  It was slowly, painfully starving to death when it ran aground.  It could not have survived.

Image Credit: University Museum of Bergen
Image Credit: University Museum of Bergen

To find out more about the story of this whale, and the enormous problems that plastic pollution cause for marine life around the world, presenter Derek Mooney and zoologist Dr. Richard Collins travelled to Bergen, in Norway.  There, they spoke with Helge Søfteland (a producer with NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster), Terje Lislevand (Associate Professor in the Department of Natural History, at the University Museum of Bergen) and Kenneth Bruvik (a Norwegian man who has dedicated his life to removing plastic from our oceans and the Norwegian coast).

Plastic is seen as utterly disposable - and yet it simply doesn’t go away: a single plastic bottle will remain intact for over 100 years without decomposing.  Other plastics will persist for more than a millennium, buried in landfill sites, clogging our rivers or polluting our beaches.  We are producing more and more of it: around 350 million tonnes per year, and rising.  By 2050, the weight of the plastic in our oceans will exceed the weight of the fish.  Dr. Lisa Emelia Svensson is the Director for Ocean, at the UN Environment, heading up the marine and coastal ecosystem work program.  She talks to Derek about what is being done by international governments to combat marine pollution...

Rowan Byrne is Principal Marine Environmental Scientist for the global engineering consultants Mott McDonald, and is shocked and horrified by the sheer scale of the problem.  He tells Derek about a conference he in organised in June 2017, in the English university town of Cambridge, which aimed to bring together interested parties to discuss solutions to the problem of marine litter and pollution.

Whales are far from the only creatures that are being severely harmed by the huge quantities of plastic that have entered our marine ecosystem.  A vast range of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, turtles and birds are also suffering due to our folly, greed and neglect.  Niall Hatch, who is Development Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, is extremely concerned about the effects of plastics on marine life and has been seeing the problem growing.  He tells Derek about the impact of plastic on Ireland's seabirds...

Dr. Heidi Acampora, a Postdoctoral researcher in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology's Marine and Freshwater Research Centre, has been examining the infiltration of marine food chains by plastic litter, as well as the dire consequences for the marine animals that are unfortunate enough to consume it.  She tells Derek and Richard Collins more about her research, and about why one bird species, the Fulmar, appears to have been hit especially hard by the abundance of plastic around the Irish coast.

According to a recent study, marine debris has been found in 8.5% of whales and dolphins in Ireland.  In one of the largest studies of this kind undertaken, it was discovered that amongst 528 creatures autopsied, a massive 93% contained plastics.  Dr. Simon Berrow is a Lecturer at GMIT, an Executive Officer of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (www.iwdg.ie); Project Manager at the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation (www.shannondolphins.ie) and a co-author of this study; he told Derek that while larger marine debris is widespread, the smaller fractions, known as microplastics, were found in all compartments of the digestive tracts of all those individuals examined for them.  Another finding was that plastic bags were the most frequently recorded item found in deep diving whales...

Mooney Goes Wild's The Bergen Whale programme was recently nominated for an IMRO Radio Award for Best Specialist Speech Programme.  There will be another opportunity to listen to The Bergen Whale on Monday, September 17th 2018 at 10pm on RTÉ Radio 1.  For further information about the programme, visit www.rte.ie/mooney.