Our Whale Tale: Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

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Our ocean is teeming with marine life...and, sadly, tons (and tons) of plastic. With our latest installation, we're trying to change that in a big way.

Blue whale art installation in Crissy Field
Blue whale art installation in Crissy Field

So, What's with the Plastic Whale?

Plastic waste in the ocean isn't a run-of-the-mill, small problem. It's an enormous one, almost impossible to visualize. Which is why we built an 82-foot-long blue whale made entirely out of plastic waste. As a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the ocean, we wanted to talk about one of the most important issues we're currently facing—plastic trash in the ocean. Consider this: Every nine minutes, plastic weighing as much as a blue whale (about 300,000 pounds) ends up in the ocean. We want to change that, and we hope you'll come to Crissy Field October 13 through March 17 to see the whale and join the fight to save the ocean.

Plastic weighing as much as a blue whale

Watch How the Whale Was Made

Meet the Whale

October 13, 2018–March 17, 2019

Crissy Field, San Francisco

Public Transporation

Hamilton Street Parking
(along the West Bluff picnic area near the Warming Hut)

Our Ocean-Loving Partners: No one builds a giant, plastic trash whale alone. We got a lot of support from: the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Hub Strategy & Communication, Building 180 and Bay Area artists Joel Dean Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova.

National Park Service
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
Hub San Francisco
Building 180

Plastic Allies: We're also very grateful to all of the organizations who donated plastic trash and offered their expertise to make this possible. Thanks to: El Cerrito Recycling Center, GreenWaste, Berkeley Waste Management Center, Warehouse Plastics, Fineline Metals Inc., Rhbu Engineering, Questa Engineering Corporation and our many volunteers.

Beyond the Whale: Our Plastic Pollution Problem

While our plastic whale is enormous, the world's plastic pollution problem is even bigger. That's because plastic is everywhere. We eat and drink from it, the products we buy are packaged in it and sometimes our clothes are made from it. The thing is, most of these items end up in the trash. Poof. Gone. Just like that. Except the truth is, plastic doesn't just disappear.

While plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces over time, it never biodegrades. As in never-never. That means something used once or twice can pollute the ocean for hundreds to thousands of years. And with so much plastic waste being discarded, scientists are starting to find plastic in all sorts of strange places—in polar sea ice, in gyres, submerged in ocean trenches and, of course, floating in the waves (which bring some of it right back to shore).

So what actually happens when plastic waste gets in the ocean? For starters, animals can get tangled in it (you might remember cutting apart six-pack rings as a child to help prevent this). There's another issue though—the fact that it's incredibly easy for marine animals to mistake plastic for food. In fact, scientists estimate up to 90 percent of seabirds have eaten plastic.

This might look like a tube filled with junk (and it is), but it's also what scientists found in the stomach of an albatross. It probably goes without saying that lighters, cigar tips, plastic bottle caps and fishing lures aren't part of a healthy diet.

Eating plastic isn't just a little unhealthy. It's actually toxic since plastic is made of chemicals like bisphenol-A (to name one). Even worse, plastic actually becomes more toxic in the ocean.

How? Plastic acts like a sponge, soaking up pollutants and pesticides from the surrounding sea water. Those concentrated toxins get passed up the food chain as big animals eat smaller ones, paying it forward in the worst possible way. Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers and other scientists are only beginning to explore the impact this has on ocean wildlife and its ecosystems.

What You Can Do

Now for the good news: There are actually a lot of things you can do (some small, some a little bit bigger) to help protect the ocean.

#1 Talk to local and national decision-makers

Email, call or send a carrier pigeon if you have to. Do whatever it takes to make sure they know you want businesses to use more sustainable practices and that you support environmental legislation, like bans on single-use plastic.

#2 Drive the market

Money talks…and it can also help save the ocean. Try to:

  • Buy products with non-plastic packaging (they're out there, promise!).
  • Support restaurants that offer biodegradable take-out containers and utensils (and maybe even tell them you appreciate their efforts).
  • Unless you need one, request your drink without a plastic straw.
  • Tell your friends about ocean-loving businesses.

#3 BYOC (Bring your own container)

It's like BYOB except it saves the world. Try to get in the habit of bringing your own container for restaurant leftovers and a mug for to-go coffee. And, of course, bring your reusable shopping bags.

#4 Be social

Don't go it alone. Suggest a 'no plastic' challenge at work. Talk about plastic reduction on social media (don't worry—it can be done without being annoying!). Organize a beach or park cleanup with friends. Be creative and have fun!

#5 Remember the 5 Rs

Saving the ocean is also about your mindset:

Rethink your habits and their effects on the ocean.
Hand refusing plastic
Refuse single-use plastic you don't really want or need.
Reusable bottle
Reuse bags, bottles and other products. Get artsy if you want.
Repair things before you replace them. Now's your chance to be more handy!
Recycle symbol
Recycle what you can, and buy recycled products.


What We're Doing

At the Aquarium, we're walking the talk. Here's some of what we're working on:

  • We're partnering with 21 leading aquariums nationwide for collective action to reduce the sources of ocean plastic pollution.
  • We supported California's successful Straws On Request bill. Beginning January 1, dine-in, full-service restaurants will be required to provide a straw only upon request by the customer.
  • In 2016, we urged Californians to vote yes on Proposition 67, which passed with 53 percent approval—making California the first state in the nation to ban single-use carryout bags.
  • We're reducing the use of plastic in Aquarium operations, including our cafe and retail shops, and stepping up our recycling efforts.
  • Our exhibits, programs and volunteer guides help educate the Aquarium's 2 million annual visitors about the impacts of ocean plastic pollution, and what each of us can do to help solve the problem.
  • We spark conversations about plastic pollution among our 3 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and our Future of the Ocean blog.
  • We engage with elected officials, advocating for science-based policy action to address the problem of ocean plastic pollution.
  • Our annual Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit prepares teachers to dive into the issue of plastic pollution, and its solutions, with their students, schools and surrounding communities.

Support Monterey Bay Aquarium

When you visit, become a member or donate, you support our work to reduce the sources of ocean plastic pollution. Together, we're making amazing changes for the ocean and the animals that call it home—not just today, but for generations to come.

Become a member Donate today