Whale Found in Thames River Dies Aboard Rescue Barge

LONDON, UK, January 22, 2006 (ENS) - A rare northern bottlenose whale sighted in the London's River Thames has died aboard a barge being used by rescuers to carry the injured marine mammal out to sea.

Normally found swimming in pods in deep, offshore waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, this is the first northern bottlenose whale to be seen in the Thames since recordkeeping began in 1913. The 17 foot whale seemed lost when it was spotted by office workers and boaters in the Thames on Friday. It appeared hurt, with a bloody nose and damaged eye.

The whale was seen swimming between Lambeth Bridge and Westminster Bridge on Friday, passing Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It attracted a great deal of attention from the media and the public, who jammed the riverbanks and watched from office windows.

That is the furthest upstream this species has ever been sighted, according to Alison Shaw, Marine and Freshwater Conservation Programme manager with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

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The first northern bottlenose whale to be spotted in the Thames River swims past Westminster. (Photo by Liz Sandeman of The Marine Connection courtesy British Divers Marine Life Rescue)
At least 40 miles from the open ocean, the whale was in obvious distress. Blood was seen in the water near the animal, and it beached itself twice.

Liz Carrington, a photographer with Lewis PR, was quoted on the company blog describing one beaching incident. "The whale was stuck on the bank, in shallow water, in front of Battersea Power Station. Three men in yellow jackets waded into the water and tried to coax it back into the water by splashing it. When it returned to deeper water, everyone cheered."

Just before noon on Saturday, veterinarians and rescuers entered the river near Albert Bridge in an attempt to help the whale. They took blood samples and unrolled an inflatable raft on which to place the five ton animal.

The whale was kept wet with soaked blankets while a barge was brought to the scene. About 2 pm, the whale was lifted onto the barge with a sling and was being taken downriver toward the North Sea.

At seven Saturday evening, the barge had reached the Thames estuary when rescuers reported that the animal experienced convulsions and died.

Mark Stevens, a director of the charitable organization British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) who led the rescue, said, “This attempt to rescue this whale was an incredible team effort including BDMLR Marine Mammal Medics, Port of London Authority, Fire Brigade and Police. They all worked as a fantastic team to attempt a very difficult task even though they became very tired and cold."

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Held in a padded sling, the whale is placed aboard a rescue barge as hundreds of Londoners look on from the banks of the Thames River. (Photo by Paul Brown of Rex Features courtesy BDMLR)
"I personally am sorry for the medics who turned up to help and worked so hard for the animal and all the public who cheered and waved to us as we passed under the bridges of London,” Stevens said.

Alan Knight, chairman of BDMLR said, “The last two days have been a helter skelter of emotions. It is sad that the whale died but we really did give it the best chance possible."

BDMLR estimates that the rescue attempt could cost the charity £100,000 (US$178,000) and asked for donations from the public.

Dr. Paul Jepson head of the ZSL's Marine Mammals Strandings Programme and the veterinary surgeon in charge of the assessment of the whale, said, “From the outset we always knew we were up against it and the odds were slim that we could successfully rescue this whale, but we felt the best way to assess the animal condition was to get it on to the barge and start to implement removal from central London."

"We were very worried about its condition, as its respiratory rate was too high, but it was stable," said Jepson. "Unfortunately it did deteriorate very quickly and we saw this happen and, after consultation with experienced colleagues, a decision was made to euthanase the animal on welfare grounds. However, before this could take place the whale sadly died.”

“Although part of today’s incident was sad to see, so many people came out and showed their continued and terrific support and their interest in marine mammals," Jepson said. "There are probably many children who may remember seeing this bottlenose whale in London and in the future I hope that they may become marine mammal enthusiasts and conservationists.”

A spokesperson for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said, "We hope the whale which visited the UK Houses of Parliament can act as ambassador for all whales, and that its death won't be in vain."

She speculated that loud noise from undersea drilling, shipping, or military sonar could have disorientated the marine mammal.

But others said human interference could not yet be blamed for the whale's fate. "It is generally accepted that the animal was lost, being away from its normal environment of the deep Atlantic, but until the post-mortem is completed we can't tell if it had major internal problems or not," said BDMLR Director Tony Woodley.

Shaw said the ZSL Institute of Zoology will conduct the post mortem analysis.