A Plastic Whale: The Symbol of a Crisis

Early February 2017 a Cuvier’s beaked whale swims into the bay of Sotra in Hordaland. The large animal has hit shore multiple times and is showing clear signs of poor health. The local department for wildlife management is ­contacted shortly, and the whale is put down. It is purely coincidental that zoologists from the University of Bergen are made aware of the situation. It does not take long to decide that the two ton whale, which is the first of its species ever observed in Norwegian waters, is going to be used for something special.

The work of turning the wale into a museum object starts a day after its discovery. After 24 hectic hours it is obvious that this animal’s history is that of the macabre. More than 30 plastic bags and a smaller amount of plastic shards are found in the whales stomach. The creature is extremely thin and it is obvi­ous that it has been in a lot of pain. Over the span of the next couple of days, the story of the Plastic Whale spreads like wildfire through multiple news channels across the globe. It has been known for quite some time that humans have been using the ocean as a giant wastebasket, so why does this case suddenly shine such a bright light on the situation? Why does the case of the Plastic Whale ­strike such a nerve, when we have all seen pictures of helpless sea-creatures caught in all sorts of discarded plastic? The story becomes a symbol of the worlds plastic crisis, and starts to create ripples of action in both Norwegian and international environmental organizations. We ask ourselves the question, what is it that turns such a tragic story into a symbol of a crisis?

The whale has been used as a common symbol for environmental organizations and movements all across the globe. Since Green Peace’s campaign Save the Whales in 1975, people have established a tight knit relationship with these intelligent mammals. Their intelligence and unique way of communicating has painted a picture of the whale as a mystical, friendly, and beautiful creature that awakens feelings of sympathy. Saving the whales has become a common moral obligation in most parts of the world, through advocacy and collective activism done by different organizations. The Norwegian coastline is supposed to be one of the cleanest and Norway is generally known by its beautiful nature, low pollution, and for having people that spend a great amount of time outdoors. In reality though, Norway falls short in the battle against plastic. The government funds a lot of work targeted towards cleanup, but there is little regulation when it comes to non-reusable plastic. Restrictions are lacking and taxing of non-recyclable plastic does not exist on a large scale.

Even with this in mind, people do not expect news of animals suffering as a result of a manmade problem coming from this country. For many people, Norway is a sort of role model when it comes to conservation. The fact that the Plastic Whale died on Norwegian shores correlates with this news article getting such traction. It all stems from a sudden disconnection with the romantic image that many people have both of Norway and of whales. People just did not expect a situation like this to occur in this country.

Illustrated plastic bag with sea animals inside
“Saving the whales has become a common moral obligation in most parts of the world”

Following the incident in Sotra, the British media channel SkyNews created a 46 minute long documentary called A Plastic Whale. The documentary tells the story of the Plastic Whale and uses this story as a starting point for a conversation about solutions for the worlds plastic crisis. In the film it becomes obvious how hard this entire ordeal has been for the local community of Hordaland. In an interview with the activist Kenneth Bruvik, Kenneth tells reporters how the first image of the Plastic Whale stayed with him for weeks. He then proceeds to bring the news team to a small island off the coast of Sotra to show them the extent of the plastic problem. With tears in his eyes he talks about his greatest fear in life, leaving the planet for the next generation in the state it is in now. The SkyNews documentary is not the only repercussion of the Plastic Whale event in Hordaland. The after repercussions of the ordeal are many, the whale has become a symbol of a nationwide movement to remove plastic from the ocean. NRK, Norsk Rikskringkasting, reports that as a fallout, one in four Norwegians has engaged in trash-cleanup, privately or through an organized event.One year later a large crowd of people met again at the Norwegian coast, and a memorial was held for the Cuvier’s beaked whale. Schools in Bergen coordinated students to partake in plastic cleanup as a major effort to tidy up local areas, and the whale’s skeleton, which is now a museum object, is ready to be officially displayed. The exhibition is at The Historical Museum and will last until mid 2019. Plastic from the whales stomach, and plastic pollution is part of the subjects for the show.

“We can not stop things from happening, but we can make sure they never happen again”

The tale of the Cuvier’s beaked whale is held in dark, quiet surround­ings and tells not only the story of the whale in Sotra, but also talks about what they eat, how they live and the dangers they face. It is pretty clear that this is not a story we will soon forget. We are likely not in a position where it is possible to avert all potential crisis. Climate change will result in extreme weather conditions, and we must deal with this by enforcing laws and regulations to change the negative trend. Large corporations take advantage of loopholes when it comes to both environment and safety, so we ask for stricter supervision, and that closer measures are taken to make sure this is possible. We can not change climate change from the past, but we can make sure they do not continue. The story of the Plastic Whale has given us, here in Norway, a chance to open our eyes and actually see the problem that plastic is causing around the world and in our oceans. We can start to rebuild our relationship with nature, fix the damage we have caused, and start putting an end to plastic pollution. If we try to make a difference now, maybe no more animals will suffer the same fate on Norwegian shores.