Balloon kills whale in North Carolina

A beached whale was discovered in Emerald Isle, N.C. on Oct. 30, 2023. Marine scientists recovered a plastic balloon from the dead whale's gastrointestinal tract. (Photo courtesy: Marine Mammal Stranding Program/UNCW)

A stranded whale washed ashore on a beach and died after ingesting a balloon on Oct. 30 in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

The Gervais’ beaked whale, identified as a long female calf, was first spotted by beachgoers stranded in shallow waters, which is unusual given these animals live hundreds of miles offshore, according to a University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) release. 

The whale was transported to the NC State University (NCSU) Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) for an autopsy by scientists.  

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An investigation showed that the whale had milk in her stomach, indicating it was a nursing calf. UNCW noted that scientists also discovered a crumpled-up plastic balloon hindering its digestive system.

"Ingestion of these balloons can cause pain, suffering, and ultimately the death of many wild animals," Michael Tift, an assistant Professor in the UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology and Director of the UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program, said in a statement in the release. "It is terribly similar to the ingestion or encounter with plastic straws and other plastic products many have seen cause injury or death in sea turtles and seabirds. I have seen Mylar® balloons in some of the most remote places on the planet and have witnessed their devastating effects on wildlife. I encourage lawmakers to consider banning these products."  

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UNCW noted that roughly 125 marine mammals become stranded on North Carolina’s beaches annually, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and manatees.

This story was reported from Washington, D.C.