These whales died in England -- scientists said they did not die from 'man-made trauma'

A photo has been shared thousands of times in multiple posts on Facebook and Twitter which claim it shows two dead sperm whales in Germany after their stomachs filled with plastic and car parts. The claim is false; the two mammals were found on the UK’s east coast; a scientific study published later found the reasons for their deaths was complex, but there was “no evidence of man-made trauma”.

The photo was shared more than 7,300 times after being posted here on Facebook on April 19, 2019. The image shows two whales lying side-by-side on a beach. They are surrounded by a makeshift fence and a group of people.

The caption alongside the post states: “Two dead sperm whales in Germany with stomachs full of plastic & car parts...”

Below is a screenshot of the misleading post:

A screenshot of the misleading Facebook post

The same photo was shared with a similar claim here and here on Facebook, and here and here on Twitter.

The claim is false. A reverse image search on Google found the same photo published in this January 2016 Daily Express article about five dead sperm whales which washed up on the British coast. The caption states: "Two of the three huge sperm whales have washed up on a beach in Lincolnshire."

Below is a screenshot comparison of a photo from the misleading Facebook post (L) and the Daily Express photo (R), credited to KNS News Agency:

Comparison between a screenshot of the photo from the misleading Facebook post (L) and the Daily Express photo (R) credited to KNS News Agency

The article states in part: “FIVE dead sperm whales the size of a bus have washed up on a British beach while one of them EXPLODED during an autopsy.

“The most recent washed up whale was discovered five miles from Skegness, where three more bodies were found yesterday.”

“Another whale was found on Saturday across The Wash from Hunstanton in Norfolk.”

This article published by The Guardian contains a video it states shows the two dead whales on a beach in the town of Skegness in Lincolnshire, England. Below is a screenshot comparison of the video (L) and the photo from the misleading posts (R). The main corresponding features are circled in red.

Comparison between a screenshot from the video (L) and the photo from the misleading Facebook post (R)

An AFP report about the dead whales was published here on January 25, 2016, along with a photo of the two animals.

An expert is quoted in the story saying the whales probably swam south looking for food but got disorientated.

In August 2018, Utrecht University in the Netherlands published this study on the 2016 whale deaths, analysing the strandings of 30 sperm whales across the southern North Sea -- including those near Skegness.

“We found no evidence of manmade trauma,” wrote lead author Lonneke IJsseldijk, adding the deaths occurred because of “a combination of several complex environmental factors”. 

“In nine examined whales, marine debris (plastic) were also found, but had not caused obstructions of the gastrointestinal tract or starvation and were deemed of secondary importance.”

Rachel Yan