Whales Burp Plastic in the Great Lakes


Photo by Chris J. Benson, provided by Minnesota Sea Grant

Just what the Great Lakes needs, more aquatic invasives. We're worrying about Asian carp and now we have whales? Whales in the Great Lakes, on Lake Superior? Well, "whale burps" have been found on the shore of Lake Superior. But they're also called surf balls, and are little bundles of fibrous material produced by winter winds. They're kind of beautiful in their own way. These burps have nothing to do with whales, and have shown up on coastlines around the world --- in Egypt, Australia, and on the shores of California's Little Borax Lake. The preferred name is surf balls, or beach balls.

They're not too common in Duluth, Minnesota. A beachgoer named Glenn Maxham reportedly brought a couple of the beach balls into a Minnesota Sea Grant office after his son found them near the city's Lakewalk following a November storm. They were the size of plums, and made up of grasses, twigs and partially degraded polymer mesh that tumbled together in the shallows of Lake Superior. Kind of like a Great Lakes tumbleweed.

The bad news: The belief is that these form when strands of plastic roll around in nearshore waves, gradually collecting vegetation, pine needles, bird feathers, shell fragments and other debris. (Check out a story on plastic pollution, from 1988).

So even though the whale/surf/beach burps are kind of beautiful, that's overshadowed by the plastic part. Minnesota volunteers picked up thousands of plastic items from the Lake Superior watershed during a 2010 Beach Sweep. About a third of the items collected were plastics. Put plastic in its place, people. The strands of black plastic rolled into the Lake Superior balls appear to be from the kind used in construction, such as a silt fence, and are not from fishing line, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Minnesota Sea Grant suggests a great way to help: "Take advantage of the next wild, blustery day. Bundle up, grab a trash bag and as you are cleaning up shoreline litter, look for your own whale burp."

More on Plastic Pollution
Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Meet Great Lakes Garbage Patch: Don't Plant Plastic in the Lakes
Marine Debris is Turkey's Problem, and Everyone Else's
Ice Cream Creates Plastic-Fighting SUPER Heroes with Help from Bonnie Raitt

Tags: Great Lakes | Minnesota | Plastics

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