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What Hail Satan? director Penny Lane learned from her doc on Satanists

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A documentary called Hail Satan? seems aimed squarely at provocation, which is fitting: Filmmaker Penny Lane (as her website URL proclaims, it’s her real name) likes to provoke audiences a little. Last year she made a movie called The Pain of Others, cut together entirely from YouTube footage uploaded by those who believe they have Morgellons disease. Her 2016 film Nuts! is a semi-animated documentary about an eccentric radio magnate named John Romulus Brinkley who, during the Depression, built an empire by claiming to cure impotence with goat testicles.

Lane’s films are always funny and weird and always pushing at the way we think about “truth.” Her latest is Hail Satan?, a portrait of the Satanic Temple, a Satanist organization that frequently advocates for total secularism in the public square by, for instance, trying to install a statue of Baphomet onto courthouse grounds in Little Rock to “provide an alternative” to the dominance of other religions signaled by a prominent display of the Ten Commandments. The film tracks with members and leaders, exploring the rise of the organization and its activism — or, depending on your perspective, trolling — in Arkansas and other parts of the country.

The movie plays like a comedy, not least because the organization is purposely cheeky about what it does. They call themselves Satanists not because they worship the devil — they don’t believe in the existence of a being called Satan — but because they hold to a set of tenets that emphasize overturning theocracies and traditional hierarchies (including, and maybe especially, any that privilege Christianity) and emphasize the autonomy of the individual. For Satanists, Satan is a symbol of ultimate human freedom and agency.

But in a world still heavily influenced by conceptions of Satan drawn both from Christianity and (perhaps even more so) pop culture, and which experiences the lingering effects of the Satanic Panic, saying you’re Satanist is a deliberately provocative move. And that’s what Hail Satan? unpacks: why people join the Satanic Temple, what they’re looking for, and whether it really is a religion, or if it’s actually a political movement or just a band of trolls.

The film debuted in January at Sundance, a film festival that takes place about 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, the seat of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or Mormonism). There, it was the subject of plenty of chatter among festivalgoers. Now, it’s opening in theaters.

I sat down with Lane in New York a couple weeks ahead of the film’s theatrical debut to talk about why she made it, whether it’s a religion or a political movement, and how the film changed her mind, as an atheist, about religion. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.


Members of the Satanic Temple at a protest in Hail Satan?

Members of the Satanic Temple at a protest in Hail Satan?
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

This is quite a project. How did you end up making the film?

Penny Lane

By the time I heard of them, the Satanic Temple had gone from being kind of a joke to being a real thing. I thought that was pretty cool. The notion of a religious movement being born out of a joke seemed like kind of a cool story, and not one I’d ever heard before.

I started by asking, “Are they serious, or are they kidding?” And realizing that the answer was “yes” and “yes” was just really fun. If the answer had been only yes to one of them, then I probably wouldn’t have been interested.

I loved the idea of watching a new religion get born, right before our eyes, and how goofy and weird that looks, especially if you’re not part of it. They’re literally doing rituals with things they’re getting from the Halloween store. Which I think even they would acknowledge is goofy, but it’s especially goofy if you’re on the outside looking in and you have no idea of what the personal meaning would be for them.

Part of what it meant to say that it had become “real” was that it had become a really interesting, and in some ways very efficient, political movement. Their activism had already proven to be effective in certain ways. But then I came to understand that their religious convictions were sincere, too. They weren’t just trolls. That was kind of mind-blowing.

I had to resist — as you do when you’re making a documentary — other stories taking over. For example, it could’ve become a biographical sketch of some of the members, and I resisted that, because it’s actually not that interesting.

It also could have very easily become a portrait of an organization as it grows. Substitute in any activist movement and you can watch it fall apart as it gets bigger. That’s in the film. We certainly gestured at it.

But I refuse to let that take over, because the underlying political stuff was so important. And also because the story, as I envisioned it, challenged my ideas about religion, religious identity, what religion is and could be. That was much more interesting to me.

Plus, I knew it’d be funny.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s what’s surprising: The film is deadly serious, but it’s also hilarious. It plays like a comedy. And that can be nice, in a landscape of documentaries that are very somber and serious.

Penny Lane

This is my role in life. I’ve often been very blessed to have directed the only movie that you saw that week that didn’t make you want to slit your fucking throat. Well, [2018’s] The Pain of Others is depressing, but most of them are pretty funny, and that’s helped my career, I think, to some extent.

But this one premiered at Sundance, and that was very interesting. Normally, when you’re at Sundance, you can forget that you’re in Utah. But I had one festival volunteer, who I think was, like, 75 years old, tell me at the beginning of the screening, in no uncertain terms, with a very straight face, that she was not happy to have been assigned to my film.

And I was like, “I’m sorry, it may not be exactly what you think … Maybe you’ll enjoy it?” I don’t what I said, but it was very awkward.

But at the end of the film, she literally came running up to me and said, “I think I might be a Satanist.” It was such a weird experience.


A scene from Hail Satan?

A scene from Hail Satan?
Magnolia Pictures

Part of what you learn at your premiere, and when you’re doing the festival run, is: Who does this film resonate with, actually? I think it’s been pretty different than who I’d thought. I worried that it would be baseline too offensive. I don’t know how to put it, but people were coming from places in the country where a Christian worldview is so integrated into everyday life that it would just be beyond offensive to even imagine the movie existing.

So I worried that it would just be too offensive. From my Massachusetts world, the world I grew up in, I felt like it could be punching down at “dumb yokels” in Arkansas; that felt real to me, and I didn’t want the film to feel like that, especially since all of the legal battles in the film are small and local. Like, who cares what the Phoenix City Council does? Or who cares if there’s a Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock — like, really, who cares?

But I actually think that the real impact of the film was the opposite of that. It was people for whom [Arkansas State Sen.] Jason Rapert is in charge of their bodies and lives that actually understand the stakes of the film better. That was really interesting.

So the Utah-ness of the premiere was helpful to me, in understanding that the film would actually resonate more in those places, not in New York and LA.

But I don’t know. We’ll see what happens at theaters.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s interesting, because it seems like the groups of people who are offended by the idea of talking about Satan and Satanism go far beyond just Christians. Maybe because of the legacy of the Satanic Panic?

Penny Lane

Absolutely. Especially early in the pitching process, it didn’t matter who I was talking to, or if they came from a Christian background. They were just all offended. Everyone’s offended by it, no matter who they are.

And that’s what was so delicious about it, Alissa — I’ve never made a movie where, in common conversation, … everyone is very certain they know everything there is to know about Satanism. Like, everyone. It doesn’t matter how many times I say, “Well, you know, actually you’re wrong, and I’ve been researching this for three years,” … They’re like, “No. You’re wrong.”

If you ask them, “Where did these ideas come from?” Like, how do you know that a Satanist is a devil worshiper and kills babies? They don’t know, but they won’t even consider that they’re wrong. For them, it’s just a fact.

These are ideas that came from Hollywood movies and daytime talk shows, and then before that, thousands of years of fear that had manifested into fantasy, largely in the Catholic Church. There never was a “black mass.” The descriptions we have of black masses came from Catholics who were going into detail about what they thought must be happening at these imaginary black masses down the road. They get real detailed. They’re like, “And then they get the communion wafer, and they shove it up the ass.” And you’re like, “Sure, okay.” [chuckles]

The whole notion of Satanism is a long history of fear and fantasy. Only very recently has it become an actual history of people who call themselves Satanists. Which is amazing. I didn’t know any of that.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right, Satanism as it’s practiced today is a very postmodern phenomenon, and not at all what people are expecting.

Penny Lane

No. A lot of people are so entrenched in those other conceptions of Satanism that they watched the entire film and said, “I loved it. Totally loved it. So great. But why do they call themselves Satanists?”

And I’m like, wow. This is a very tough one to break through. But even I had those thoughts. Six months into the project, I’d be washing the dishes, and be like, “But wait … but why do they call themselves Satanists, again?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be better if they called themselves something else?”

It is a super complicated worldview that takes a long time to digest.


Lucien Greaves, spokesman and co-founder of the Satanic Temple, with the statue of Baphomet.

Lucien Greaves, spokesman and co-founder of the Satanic Temple, with the statue of Baphomet.
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. For them, there are rituals and practices, but they’re not about worshipping some being called Satan. They’re about something else. But most people’s mental picture of Satan is drawn from pop culture, a little red man with horns and a pitchfork. But watching the film, it occurred to me that their ideas about what “Satan” is are a lot closer to what some more progressive Christian denominations think Satan is: a force of evil that can live inside of us, and is out there in the world.

Penny Lane

Right.

Alissa Wilkinson

The difference is that for Satanists, that’s not evil. That’s just you. That’s fine, and you should embrace it. But that means what they believe they’re communing with in their religion is very different from the perception other people have of them, right?

Penny Lane

Totally.

Alissa Wilkinson

Since the film makes the point that the Satanic Temple is not just an activist movement, but also a religion, how did that affect you? How did making the film change or challenge your conceptions of religion?

Penny Lane

I basically have no religious background. I’ve never even been to church — maybe for a funeral once or something. For those of us who have never been religious, you think, as an atheist who knows nothing, that religion is primarily about a list of beliefs that, from the outside, are patently absurd and stupid. Who would believe these things?

But I came to understand that for most people, the importance of religion is not about a list of beliefs, but about experience, day-to-day life, community, and a coherent narrative — a sort of organizing force that provides meaning and structure to existence.

I definitely started out the project believing, as I had my whole life, this “New Atheist” kind of dogma, that religion is stupid and that the world would be better off if people weren’t religious. Then I came to understand that the function that religion plays for people in their lives is so valuable — not even valuable, just so important and foundational, in terms of what human existence is. And it’s not going anywhere.

So it would be better to imagine better religion — or maybe “better religious institutions” is even a better way of putting it — than to fantasize that the future is gonna be all just individuals floating around in relationship to other individuals with no tribes, and no mythologies, and no narratives.

Not only would I not want to live in that world, but I don’t think it’s possible.

I think that was my own personal evolution in the project, which is somewhat irrelevant to the film. But that’s where I went. I’ve never understood religion or religious people more than doing this project. I started out thinking I was making a film that made fun of religious people, and then I realized I was making a film about religious people, and that’s a very big realization for me.

I knew that they said that they were a religion at the beginning, but I don’t think I really believed it. I thought, “Well, you’d have to say that, wouldn’t you, if you were fighting for religious rights?” I didn’t really believe that they were until I got away from the leadership and went to the local chapters, and saw them doing good works in their communities I talked to all these different Satanists and got an understanding of how important this has been in their own lives.


2019 Sundance Film Festival - ‘Hail Satan?’ Premiere

Penny Lane with Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves and producer Gabriel Sedgwick at the premiere of Hail Satan? in Utah in January 2019.
Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

It was so moving. It was so moving to me, to hear this over and over again — to discover that every one of these people have felt completely alone, their whole lives, and had never felt like they were part of a group. They hated groups, and never wanted to be part of a group, until they suddenly realized they could be part of this one, and it would be awesome. That they could do more as a group than they could alone. The sense of validation that they all felt.

And it made me feel jealous of them, to be honest. Because I didn’t come out of the project as devoutly Satanist myself, but it did make me realize what I don’t have. I don’t have that. I never have. I don’t think I ever will. There’s something about joining that’s so not for me. Whenever I try to join a group, I’m allergic to it. But somehow these Satanists have managed to be joiners. I think they’re a lot happier for it.

Alissa Wilkinson

And it’s interesting to me that they have rituals together, which they’ve developed themselves. You watch them and think, why would you invent a religious ritual that looks so strange from the outside? But this is one among several documentaries I’ve seen over the past few years that make the point that all religions look weird to outsiders, especially at the beginning.

Penny Lane

They all look weird from the outside. We don’t think a Catholic mass looks weird, because we’re just used to it. But, I mean, it is weird.

Alissa Wilkinson

Honestly, when I was a kid growing up in an evangelical church, I thought Catholic masses looked weird.

Penny Lane

The universe of meaning that is encoded in those rituals, for the participants, is illegible to us. We don’t know why they’re doing those things. Why are they doing that? Why are they doing this thing with the upside down cross? What is this stuff?

Honestly, that’s why I started to believe they weren’t just trolls, they were a religion. Because they do these rituals privately, and it has nothing to do with whether it offends you. It has everything to do with what that experience means to them, and nothing to do with anyone else.

For a while, I struggled with whether this was performative or authentic. You’re saying the script, you’re repeating the words, you’re putting on certain clothes, you’re singing certain songs — you’re sort of enacting these ritualistic behaviors in different ways, in community, that had been written and handed down. That’s how you authentically express your belief: to perform it. I realized that religion is both.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. The performance becomes authentic as you do it.

Penny Lane

I think so. I mean, why else would people do it?

Alissa Wilkinson

I often think about church services as theater.

Penny Lane

I would think so. And art. And it’s a ritual.

Alissa Wilkinson

But it’s also about becoming part of something bigger than yourself, in a bodily form. And that’s totally what they’re doing.

Penny Lane

Experiential and spiritual and all those things. Again, it’s something that’s just bigger than you.


Baphomet in Hail Satan?

The statue of Baphomet in Hail Satan?
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

So, if Satanism is a religion, is the Satanic Temple a religion first and a political movement second, or is it the other way around? That seems important, because their perspective on politics seems fairly unique; they’re not advocating for their own dominance, but for nobody’s dominance. I think that might be what a lot of people wish all religious groups would do.

Penny Lane

I had to disentangle Satanism as a religion from the Satanic Temple as an institution, because they’re not identical. I would say that if the Satanic Temple is a church, it’s kind of a failing one (in many ways that we don’t have to get into). But as an advocacy group, it’s very effective.

Satanism, as a religion, is growing and on the move. But that’s not a political stance; that’s a religious identity.

But what the Satanic Temple did that was so novel was bring the idea of activism into the idea of worship, and combine them. They say, “Whatever, it’s both. Get over it.” This is part of their religious practice. Take it or leave it, but that’s what they say.

In the end, I was more interested in the idea that it was a religion with political elements, but I don’t know that that’s accurate. It’s just what I was interested in. And I don’t even think that that’s what the film said. I think most people would say it’s a political movement with maybe some religion stuff in there.

It also depends who you ask. Some of the members are more politically motivated than others. There are some of them for whom I think 90 percent of the appeal of this identity is a kind of outward-facing, trolling, provocation, political movement, and 10 percent of it is about something that feels like what we might call religious. For others, it’s the other way around. There are hundreds of thousands of members.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s interesting to see this as a new religion, and wonder how it might change as it ages.

Penny Lane

A local chapter of the Satanic Temple came to a screening, and were answering some questions afterwards — which was great, because I didn’t want to answer some of the questions for them.

One of the questions was, “How would you possibly think that you could avoid all the same pitfalls of any other institutionalized religion, for all time? How do you not become hierarchical and dogmatic?”

And the chapter head in Ontario said, “Well, you have to look at our core values. If five of the seven tenets are about willingness to change your mind if you’re wrong, in the face of new evidence, then that’s a good starting place.”

They would never carve their tenets in stone, quite literally, and that fact to them is an attempt to avoid dogma.

Is it going to work? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting idea. I’m sure everyone has these ideas at the beginning. But then … flash forward.

Hail Satan? opens in select theaters on April 19.

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What happens when a gothic lit expert moves into a haunted house

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Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of May 19, 2019.

Another thing about that first workshop was that I heard something about myself that I had never heard before: that my story was protective and civilized and carefully managed. These to me seemed the primary virtues of fiction that I loved and that I wanted to write. There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be. I left the workshop that night feeling like I had been struck by lightning. I was angry and ashamed.

Become a literary citizen of the world. Spend time in a foreign literary community by hatching an insane plot to launch a new Holy War against the infidels of Egypt, a plot so deeply deranged that when you finally manage to present your plan to Louis XIV, a king who enthusiastically led France into four major wars, he’s so appalled by the idea of a new crusade that he literally responds, “I have nothing to say.” Do all of this just to live in Paris for a bit.

“I don’t think the Times has ever seen this number of requests,” a veteran editor concurred, adding, “For department heads, it’s become almost impossible to manage.” The glut of big newsy projects that require essential beat reporters to take book leave is especially tricky. For one thing, there’s always concern among editors about balancing reporting that’s exclusive to books with reporting that can be published in the Times. More practically, as another Times journalist put it, “It’s kind of made the editors stand up and realize, holy shit, we have all these people writing books, and that’s an awful lot of man- and woman-power off the daily report in a pretty significant way.”

Books can be aesthetic signifiers, colorful set pieces of sorts, their spines telegraphing a certain gravitas — or a certain playfulness, depending on how they’re arranged. “I like to compare physical books to candles,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Light bulbs do the job, but there’s a strong aesthetic of a candle that puts soul into a room. Books do that, too. They create theater and drama.”

It is lined with red, marbled paper. On the inside cover, two skeletons hold a banner reading: “Statutum est hominibus semel mori,” or “All people are destined to die once.” It’s Hebrews 9:27, and it wouldn’t be nearly as ominous if it wasn’t next to 10 little drawers labeled with names of poisonous plants, and a mirrored shelf holding several little glass bottles.

The compartments bear the German names for hemlock, wolfsbane, foxglove, and more—all lethal, properly administered—and the suggestion seems to be that the little vials are there for a would-be poisoner to mix up their own deadly cocktails.

Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.

Of course, bookstores sell books, but these shops often serve other purposes as well. Leftist bookstores in particular commonly act as multipurpose spaces for local activists as well as stops for progressive and leftist authors’ book tours. In some smaller towns, these bookshops can be neighborhood or even city strongholds for locals who may not have many other places to safely and comfortably organize, or even just hang out. Bookshops that are not expressly political in their mission still frequently host authors whose work is political, and thus when these authors are targeted, often bookshops are as well.

This is the problem with white people, as Eddie Murphy assesses it in his 1983 standup comedy special Delirious: we stay in haunted houses, like idiots. We don’t heed the warnings; we don’t read the signs. In pursuit of the American dream of homeownership—the middle-class domestic ideal, the manicured lawn, the 30-year mortgage and its promise of equity and upward mobility—we colonize spaces, nominally vacant and hauntingly occupied, as if we belong there. As if it is our right.


Here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!

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Meet the brand new ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar. Wrapped up in an exclusive print from designer of the moment and ELLE friend Richard Quinn, and housing no less than 24 luxury beauty products worth £340, the ELLE Beauty Advent Calendar is the only Christmas present you need this year. Buy yours now: https://bit.ly/2Rhdg2b

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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained

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Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.

This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.

In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.

“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”

In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.

As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.

But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.

To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.

There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean

The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.

Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.


Prince Charles, Prince of Wales stands beside a huge Whale made from plastic bottles as part of the Sky Ocean rescue Campaign, outside the Queen Elizabeth II building at Westminster on April 17, 2018 in London, England.

Charles, Prince of Wales, stands beside a huge whale made from plastic bottles as part of the Sky Ocean rescue campaign, outside the Queen Elizabeth II building at Westminster on April 17, 2018, in London.
John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”

And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.

Different whales face different risks from plastic

Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?

Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.

Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.

Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.

“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”

Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.


Rescuers found a baby dolphin in distress in Fort Myers, Florida. After the animal was euthanized, officials found two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon in its stomach.

Rescuers found a baby dolphin in distress in Fort Myers, Florida, last month. After the animal was euthanized, officials found two plastic bags and a piece of a balloon in its stomach.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.

A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.

Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.

“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.

Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.

We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic

Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.

Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.

“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”

Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.

And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”

But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.

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