A Whale of an Eating Disorder: Problems with the Gray Whale Diet

gray whale diet of ghost shrimp leaves feeding pits in the sand

Concern Over What Gray Whales are Eating

I’ve tried several times this week to write about whales and what they’re putting in their bellies. I first started this post after hearing that a female gray who died near Washington’s Whidbey Island, was found to have a stomach full of wood chips instead of the ghost shrimp that make up a normal gray whale diet.

Ghost shrimp live under the sand in bays with gentle, sloping bottoms. The grays feed by digging into the sand with the side of their head and flipping the shrimp up into the water. At low tide you can see the feeding pits like those in the photo above. Wood chips are not typically part of a healthy gray whale diet.

I wondered about how the whale ended up eating wood. Was the whale confused? Did someone dump their shavings on the mudflats? Was the whale trying to feed near the site of an old saw mill? Is the shrimp population so depleted by the bait industry that the whale could find none and just had to fill her empty belly with something? Anything? But where and why she got the chips, the fact that we let so much of our trash make its way into the sea and settle onto the bottom of our bays practically guarantees that more grays will die this way.

Pollutants in the Gray Whale Diet are not the Only Hazard

Then there was an attack on a gray by some transient orcas. Though sad to see, this was nothing much to get upset about, simply the natural system of the wild world. It was unusual though that the orcas attacked an adult. Usually they prey upon calves, notably at Monterrey Bay where inexperienced mother grays try to take a short cut across the deep underwater canyon. It’s worth noting that a whale watching boat actually moved between the animals trying to intervene to stop the recent attack. Whale watching boats are known for causing havoc of several kinds around whales.

The maneuver appears to have been somewhat successful as the gray escaped and later was sighted here and there around the Sound. We can only hope he found enough ghost shrimp to sustain him for the next leg of his journey to the Arctic, and missed out on the wood chips. Meanwhile the Orcas now have to go in search of other food.

I think most of us would have shared that impulse to intervene. If there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that human intervention upsets the balance of things. Unfortunately we don’t seem to be able to help ourselves – we keep doing it over and over again.

And most recently came the news of a young male gray whale washed up on shore in south Puget Sound. When scientists did the necropsy to find out what killed the animal they found his stomach full of food – and other items – and so ruled out starvation as the cause of death.

No wood chips this time. But the list of other items in that whale’s gut was straight out of the Story of Stuff. According to a story in the Seattle Times this guy had a taste for synthetics. (The Times link is dead and I can’t find an update. Left it in place because the 404 page is funny. Check it out.)

“Also found in the animal was “a surprising amount of human debris,” researchers said, including “more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweat pants, plastic pieces, duct tape, and a golf ball.”

Okay, what’s up with that? Is this the same behavior that filled the other whale’s belly with wood chips, the only difference being where the animal happened to be when it opened its mouth? Or is this a cetacean version of Prader-Willi Syndrome? There are so many questions as to these changes in gray whale diet, feeding behavior and subsequent deaths. But there’s no question about how that trash got to where the whales could eat it. People put it there. Why are some yahoos still dumping their trash in Puget Sound? Stop it! All of you!

The number of gray whale deaths raises some concern. Another report, this from Komo News, included a quote from NOAA:

“In the past two weeks, five dead gray whales have been found – four in Puget Sound waters and the fifth near Vancouver, B.C. Three of those died last week. ‘In a typical year … we get five to 10 dead gray whales over the course of spring, summer and early fall,’ said Brian Gorman, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle. ‘It is unusual to get so many coming in so quickly one right after another.’

Please. Don’t Throw Trash in the Water.

3 comments

  1. I also posted about the whale. The news about the whale deaths is very disturbing. Especially the one with so much human garbage in its belly. It only goes to show that after 40 years of Earth Day, there is still much to do on the Environmental warfront.

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