Remembering the Thames whale 10 years on

There it was, a whale soon to be known around the world as the Thames whale; surreal, lost and looking so incredibly out of place.

“It’s not as if a whale is ever going to swim up the Thames is it?!”

These were the words of my director when I suggested that our office go on a marine mammal medic course.

“Are you sure it’s not just a bit of a jolly?”

Hmm, not unless you regard donning a dry suit and wading into a very cold and dirty river Thames in the middle of winter a jolly. I can think of many things I would rather do.

A few days later, I and some colleagues from the London office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) embarked on a course run by our friends at British Divers Marine Life Rescue.

It was a cold and rainy day as we ventured out in our dry suits onto the banks of the Thames at Battersea (trying to imagine it was Hawaii) to learn how to assess and re-float an inflatable dolphin, seal and a two-tonne life-size pilot whale. The models were filled with water and really lifelike, so convincing in fact that BDMLR actually received calls from concerned passers-by reporting stranded animals on the banks of the river during our training session!

We learned, importantly, that animals often strand because there is something wrong with them so they need to be treated with great care. We used pontoons to re-float the inflatables as they were so heavy.

Two months later, sitting at my desk in our office on the bank of the Thames at Vauxhall, I heard on the radio that there was a whale in the Thames, reported to be headed upstream towards central London. In disbelief, we flocked to the windows and lo and behold there it was, a whale soon to be known around the world as the Thames whale; surreal, lost and looking so incredibly out of place.

It was thought to be a juvenile northern bottlenose whale, one of the deepest diving whale species, feeding on squid and fish found near the sea floor. And here it was in the shallow waters of the Thames.

Along with other volunteers, I spent that night with the Thames Harbour Master out on a boat with BDMLR, in darkness except for our flashlights, freezing, searching for any sight of the whale, which had by this point disappeared. We were hoping that it had somehow made its way back out of the estuary but we knew that this was unlikely and probably it was still nearby; stuck, disorientated and distressed.

Just before midnight we called it a night and went home to dreams filled with images of this poor displaced creature and fears for its well-being. The next day, 21 January 2006, I was woken with a start at 5 am by an alert from BDMLR saying the whale had been spotted once again, near Albert Bridge in Battersea. I joined two IFAW colleagues who had also been trained on the banks of the river to assist in the rescue operation.

Public concern for this whale was overwhelming. Albert Bridge and both riverbanks were lined with thousands of spectators of all ages while TV helicopters circled above. As we donned the familiar dry suits and waded into the water, this time towards a living, breathing whale, I felt at once nervous and privileged to be so close to such an enormous and majestic creature. The whale was in water shallow enough to wade out to and we managed to inflate the pontoons on the riverbank and manoeuvre them under its huge body like a makeshift whale mattress. I was given the task of keeping the whale hydrated, pouring water over it with a watering can while vets monitored its breathing and heart rate. I could sense its distress and I could see the cuts and marks on its skin where it had collided with vessels or scraped along debris on the river floor. We slowly floated it downstream between two dinghies to meet a barge to take it out to the river mouth where we all hoped it could be safely released.

As I watched it being suspended in a crane onto the barge, I said my own goodbye and hoped that it would survive this experience. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. With its condition worsening the decision was made that the kindest thing was to put the animal to sleep to end its suffering.

A post-mortem later revealed that the whale had died from dehydration, muscle damage and failing kidneys. It had been unable to feed on its usual diet of squid and poignantly its stomach contents included plastic bags and a potato.

Ten years on I remember this day vividly and continue to hope the Thames whale didn’t die in vain. Ironically, northern bottlenose whales were hunted heavily by Britain and Norway in the 19th Century, being relatively easy targets due to their playfulness and curiosity towards human vessels.

The worldwide interest in this one whale demonstrates how far we have moved on from the old days of industrial-scale whaling to learn to cherish our deep connection with these amazing creatures. However, sadly, Japan, Iceland and Norway are still cruelly harpooning whales for commercial reasons.

I’m now working for IFAW in Australia and am lucky enough to see whales and dolphins near Sydney harbour. Australia, previously whaling country, now a staunch whale advocate with a booming whale watching industry, is an example of how a country can turn things around for the better. Watch and learn Japan, Iceland and Norway.

--JS  

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Experts

Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation