Scientists concerned after recent strandings of whales along US and Florida coast

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – A group of young friends went out fishing just after New Year’s Day when an unexpected real-life National Geographic moment happened right in front their faces.

They came across the carcass of a dead whale being devoured by a shiver of hungry sharks about a mile off Key Biscayne.

“Right away, I just start recording,” said Key Biscayne resident Juan Sanchez. “Like honestly, I think we stayed at the wheel for probably like 25 to 30 minutes just recording it, getting every angle we could possibly get.”

The friends couldn’t believe what they were witnessing.

“Never seen a whale in Miami before, so we weren’t sure what it was,” said Key Biscayne resident Spencer Davis. “As we approached it, we started realizing all the sharks in the blood, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’”

According to NOAA, the whale was a 28-foot subadult female sperm whale.

South Florida native photographer Nic Brunk got there as FWC officers arrived to take samples from the carcass.

“You definitely don’t want to see whales washing up on the shoal in Biscayne Bay,” said Brunk.

And this isn’t an isolated incident.

Earlier Wednesday, a large Orca whale died after it stranded itself on a beach in Flagler County, and last May two sperm whales beached themselves in the Florida Keys. One was a newborn calf that became separated from its mother and the other was a 47-foot adult that beached itself near Key West.

Shane Gero is a whale biologist who’s spent the last two decades researching sperm whales. He says what’s happening is concerning.

“That’s an unusual rate,” Gero said. “On average, there are a few, 1,000 strandings worldwide. So having three in a short period of time is unusual for Florida, for sure. In the U.S., sperm whales are listed as an endangered species, so losing any individuals makes a huge difference.”

Especially since we will never know why this most recent whale died.

According to NOAA, a staff vet saw signs of trauma to the head, but the body was so decomposed that determining an exact cause of death was not possible.

What was found inside the stomach of the sperm whale from last May, however, was a mass of intertwined line, pieces of net and a plastic bag type material that, according to the FWC, prevented the animal from eating, leading to its emaciated condition and stranding.

“Around the world, sperm whales, and many other cetaceans, are found with massive amounts of plastic in their stomachs, and we all should be concerned,” said Dr. Jeremy Kiszka, a professor of marine mammals at FIU. “These animals really face challenging times and plastic pollution is only one of the threats.”

Noise pollution and boat collisions are also big contributors to the strandings we’re seeing around the world.

Earlier this week, a humpback whale became the second in less than a month to beach itself off the coast of Atlantic City, while for the first time ever, an endangered fin whale stranded itself off the coast of Mississippi. There has been no cause of death determined yet, but scientists are noticing a trend.

“Increasingly, all of these whales that are turning up on our shores are filled with marine debris, mostly plastics,” said Gero.

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean, and that’s on top of the 150 million metric tons already there.

“We’ve been killing whales for centuries, we just don’t do it on purpose anymore,” said Gero. “It’s mostly by accident.”

Mother Nature is loudly sounding the alarm, but are we really paying attention?

“I think it’s a reminder that we have these extraordinary creatures living off our coast,” said Kiszka. “And that these animals face huge challenges that we need to better understand, and also try to mitigate our impact on these animals.”

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.