MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. (WNCN) — A baby whale, not much more than 10 feet in length, was found by beachgoers at Emerald Isle on October 30.
The calf was a Gervais’ beaked whale, which experts say are large, deep diving marine mammals that are very rare to spot as their normal habitat is at or beyond the edge of the continental shelf.
When the calf at Emerald Isle was found, it was in shallow water and was reported to the NC Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The responders confirmed the calf had expired and that it was a 10 foot, nine-inch female.
With the assistance of helpful beach goers, members of the police and public works departments, the calf was removed from the water and transported to Morehead City. After being chilled overnight, it was examined at the NC State University (NCSU) Center for Marine Sciences and Technology where a necropsy was preformed.
In addition to marine mammal scientists and veterinarians, students also participated in the analysis from NC State University, UNC Wilmington, Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, among others.
Everything appeared normal in the necropsy until they reached the whale’s stomach.
In addition to some milk, which indicated the female was a nursing calf, a balloon in the shape of a pentagon was discovered. It was crumpled up, the experts said, and was obstructing the gastrointestinal tract. Because of this find, the determined cause of death was ingestion of plastic.
According to a statement from the center, roughly 125 marine mammals are stranded each year on North Carolina’s beaches, including whales, dolphins, seals, manatees and porpoises. While some die from natural causes, others fall victim to human interaction, such as fish net entanglement, boat strikes and consuming plastic.
On its Facebook page Wednesday, the center put out a plea to the public to make the switch to plastic alternatives when celebrating.
“Before purchasing balloons to commemorate important life events (whether they are latex or Mylar), please consider using biodegradable alternatives instead,” the post said. “Though people often release balloons to remember and honor loved ones, we urge people to consider other methods.”
As a recommended alternative, the center said biodegradable paper decorations are more eco-friendly and often less expensive. In addition to balloon alternatives, people can also consider lighting a candle or scattering flower petals to commemorate and honor loved ones instead.
If balloons are used, whether latex or Mylar, the center said to dispose of them properly and carefully and to make sure all gases are removed to avoid them getting loose.
When loose, they pose an “unnecessary danger to wildlife,” which can cause animals—like the rare beaked whale—to starve and perish over time.