Seal with Starbucks spotlights ocean plight

Wide-eyed: More than 1,500 seal pups were born at the Lincolnshire reserve last year. © Dan Thurling

Are we killing our sea life? A seal clutches a glass bottle in a photo that’s gone viral. Baby porpoises are poisoned by chemical pollutants. Then, a whale washes up with 100kg of litter in its belly.

With a click of his camera, photographer David Thurling captured the plight of mammals living in polluted seas across the planet.

The young seal was nestled on a Lincolnshire sandbank in the UK’s Donna Nook reserve. Clutched between the animal’s fluffy jaws was a glass Starbucks bottle.

The image, widely shared online, has provoked shock and disgust.

“We are deeply saddened by this image,” said the international coffee giant in a statement. “At Starbucks, reducing waste by increasing recycling and encouraging reuse is something we are passionate about.” Starbucks has now promised to help protect the area.

But the heart-rending pattern keeps repeating. Last Thursday, a sperm whale was found dead on Seilebost beach, Scotland with a 100kg “litter ball” in its stomach.

Dan Parry, who lives close to the beach, said, “It was desperately sad, especially when you saw the fishing nets and debris that came out of its stomach.” Amongst the litter were bags and plastic cups.

The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) described the amount of rubbish in the whale’s stomach as “horrific”.

Just yesterday, it emerged that baby porpoises in waters off the UK are being poisoned by powerful chemical pollutants in their mother’s milk.

The chemicals, known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were present at dangerous levels in hundreds of young porpoises. Despite being banned in the UK decades ago, PCBs have lingered in the water and are now accumulating in the country’s sea life.

In 2017, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II held up the shocking extent of plastic pollution for all the world to see. Eight million pieces of plastic get into the ocean every day.

Microplastics have permeated the surface of Earth from our bottled water to the most isolated reaches of Antarctica. Floating between California and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, there is a vast mass of litter three times the size of France.

Over one million marine animals will die from plastic pollution each year.

Are we killing our sea life?

Marine massacre?

Of course we are, say some. New research shows that the extent of pollution in our oceans is far worse than feared, and still growing. Across the world, animals are starving and dying, filled up with chemicals and water. Plastic has been pouring into the ocean at sharply increased rates since the 1990s, despite the lip service we now pay to the problem.

But there is cause for optimism, insist others. The UK is in the process of expanding its protected Blue Belt to an area of sea twice the size of England, saving species from the short-snouted seahorse to the ocean quahog. For the first time in 50 years, seals and porpoises are thriving in the Thames River. This story has a clear moral: we can save our sea life if we try.

You Decide

  1. Does life always find a way to survive?
  2. Do we empathise more with mammals than other animals?


  1. Draw a map of your country, labelling where some of its major marine animals live.
  2. Write a script for a TV news report about the seal photograph that’s gone viral.

Some People Say...

“Fishes live in the sea, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones.”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In less than a week, a seal in Lincolnshire, UK, was photographed chewing on a glass Starbucks bottle; a dead sperm whale washed up on a Scottish beach with 100kg of rubbish in its stomach, and baby porpoises in UK seas were found to be ingesting poison from their mother’s milk. The developments have raised serious concerns about the state of pollution in seas off Britain and around the world.
What do we not know?
If sea animals are in an better position than the rest of the animals on Earth. Scientists have repeatedly reported that the planet is in its sixth mass extinction, driven by human activity such as habitat encroachment and climate changes caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions. According to the UN, up to one million species face extinction.

Word Watch

Polychlorinated biphenyls
Previously found in paint and plastics.
Dangerous levels
The chemicals are thought to be toxic to the brain and the nervous system.
David Attenborough
The 93-year-old TV presenter and naturalist has been presenting nature programmes since the 1950s.
Bottled water
Microplastics have been found in 90% of bottled water, according to the World Health Organisation.
Isolated reaches
Traces of microplastics and hazardous chemicals found in majority of snow and ice samples taken in 2018.
Mass of litter
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex.


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