Big river, small whale; the life and times of the Thames Estuary harbour porpoise

This week, the Song of the Whale team begins a project focused on harbour porpoises in the tidal Thames.This week, the Song of the Whale team begins the first part of a project focused on harbour porpoises in the tidal Thames, the country’s busiest waterway.

The harbour porpoise is the smallest member of the whale and dolphin family found in European waters, and as the name suggests, they are often found in coastal bays, estuaries and harbours. The name porpoise is derived from the unflattering description of these mammals in Medieval Latin: ‘pig fish’!

Porpoises are similar to dolphins but lack a ‘beak’ and rather than sharp, conical teeth, they have spade-shaped teeth. Relatively little is known about the presence of porpoises in UK coastal waters, although it is understood that a large proportion of the North Atlantic population of porpoises is found within the waters of the UK.

This is something to be proud of and we should do our best to protect this iconic mammal.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare is partnering with Marine Conservation Research for this, the first dedicated study of porpoises in the River Thames, which will cover the waters from Teddington Lock to the outer Estuary, using both acoustic and visual methods.

Vessel-based research will be conducted in coordination with public shore watches, an open day and a programme of virtual classroom lessons for schools. Working closely with a wide range of partner groups, and with the fantastic support of all our funders, the team will also undertake a second survey in late summer; other activities will be rolled out through the year.

The ‘porpoise’ of the project

Harbour porpoises are common to all UK waters. However, threats such as accidental entanglement in certain types of fishing net, have led to the species being assessed as under threat/in decline in the Greater North Sea and Celtic Sea, resulting in its recognition as a species of conservation importance under several international conventions and legislation.

Harbour porpoises are common to all UK waters.Additionally, porpoises can be harmed, disturbed and displaced by underwater noise, and other human activities. Unfortunately, a lack of data on presence and distribution of porpoises around much of the UK’s coast means that they are often not properly considered in the planning and impact assessments for commercial developments.

Our goal is to raise the profile of the species, in this busiest of waterways, and provide additional impetus and evidence to encourage measures for their protection around our coasts.

We aim to understand the seasonal presence and distribution of porpoises in the tidal Thames, highlighting their important habitats, as well as quantifying the levels of marine litter, man-made noise and other human activities. The Thames was declared biologically dead 60 years ago; we are hoping to establish whether harbour porpoises are staging a remarkable return to the river, which is now home to two species of seals and 125 different types of fish, including a rare sea horse.

As well as being a scientific study, the Thames Porpoise Project is also an educational tool to inspire and train the conservation scientists of the future. There are four participant interns aboard the Song of the Whale this week, learning more about the techniques and skills used to study marine wildlife and the environment.

Additionally, we are filming ‘virtual classroom’ lessons from the research vessel for primary and secondary school children, and A-level lectures. Through this scheme we are helping to ensure a future where the Thames remains a healthy and diverse habitat for marine wildlife and the community.

A range of active collaborators involved in the conservation of the Thames are joining forces to undertake this novel project. We are very grateful to the following organisations, including IFAW, who are supporting this important project, Thames Tideway Tunnel, The Ernest Cook Trust, The John Spedan Lewis Foundation, London Array Ltd and Sea-Changers. Partners and collaborators include ZSL, The City of London Corporation, Hermitage River Projects, the RSPB, Kent Mammal Group, The Wildlife Trusts, ORCA, Thames Estuary Partnership and Thames21. You can get involved!

  • Join us at shorewatches at RSPB Rainham Marshes and Essex Wildlife Trust Thurrock Thameside Nature Park to look out for marine mammals on our river this Saturday 7th March.
  • Come to the first project open day, where you can learn about the Thames porpoise, meet the team and get a tour of our research vessel. This takes place on Sunday March 8 between 1pm and 4pm at Hermitage Community Mooring, Wapping, East London.

Hope to see you!


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation