Cuvier’s beaked whale or the goose-beaked whale is one of the most frequently seen beaked whales, despite preferring deep pelagic waters, usually deeper than 1,000 m. Last weekend, a young Cuvier’s beaked whale washed up on the Mindanao island of Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic crammed into its stomach. The gaunt animal likely died of dehydration and starvation, unable to get any food apart from the mass of plastic bags, rice sacks, and tangled nylon ropes.
Ethan Edson, a researcher of Northeastern University pointed out that plastics are meant to last forever hence when it falls into the ocean, it doesn’t go away. Plastics have worked their way into the entire aquatic food chain, starting with microbes and filter feeders and ending up on our own dinner plates. Scientists have estimated that 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.
Edson has been working on an autonomous sensor to study microplastics, that are pieces of plastic is smaller than 5 millimeters that are found in the oceans. While they’re less noticeable than a drifting plastic bag, they can be just as hazardous. Plastics at this size are often eaten by small fish or filter feeders who mistake them for food. Animals that ingest them may take in the extra toxins as well. And both the plastics and the toxins are passed on when predators eat these smaller fish. Nowadays, microplastics have been found in drinking water, beer, sea salt, honey, the air that we breathe.
MantaRay is a sensor, inexpensive compared to other modes of data collection from the ocean. The device is intended to collect data while attached to underwater vehicles, buoys, and even the hulls of ships. Edson designed the first version of MantaRay as his capstone project during his senior year at Northeastern University. He hopes to understand what’s going on and how microplastics are interacting with our ecosystems the biological significance and eventually the impact on human health.