thames whale

Nine years ago today, on January 20, 2006, David Doplin, a commuter on a London train, called police about 8:30 AM to say that he thought he’d seen a whale swimming up the Thames River. He added that at first he thought he was hallucinating. Other similar reports began to filter in soon after, and soon BBC TV cameras caught the image of a mysterious aquatic visitor in the waters of central London. There was indeed a whale–specifically, a Northern bottlenose–in the Thames.

To say this was highly unusual is an understatement. Although bottlenose whales are indigenous to Atlantic waters around the British Isles, this species of whale prefers very deep waters–they have been observed swimming as low as 4,000 feet–and certainly none has any business in a shallow river like the Thames, which is barely 16 feet deep in most places. But, however the whale got there, it definitely was there; in fact some authorities knew of its presence the previous evening, January 19, when technicians at the Thames Barrier (which is built to prevent flooding) reported that some sort of large animal had swam through the gates that night. As Friday, January 20 wore on and the tide began to come out, the whale beached itself in various places. Londoners gathered around, urging it back to deeper waters. The whale appeared to be in some distress.

The Thames Whale generated a tremendous amount of news coverage. Here are some clips from the events as reported on Sky News in January 2006.

The next morning, Saturday, the whale was still there, struggling against the tide, and it was obvious it wasn’t going to get back to the open sea without human help. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR)–a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving aquatic mammals in British waters–who had been watching the whale decided they had to intervene. Surrounding the mammal in small boats, they guided the whale to shallower waters to beach it intentionally, hoping to pick it up with a crane and deposit it on a barge that would take it out to sea. Because whales are mammals who breathe air, not water, this would not in itself be fatal, but they’d have to keep the whale’s skin wet during the time it was out of the water. This was done by handlers with a red watering can that eventually became famous after the incident was over. In the examination of the whale it was determined she was a young female.

After a tarpaulin was gingerly stretched under the whale’s body, a crane lifted the whale off a sandbar near the Albert Bridge and transferred her to a barge. By now the whale in the Thames was a cause celebré and millions were watching on BBC, on the Web and through various other media. Many Londoners had also gathered on the bridges and along the banks of the Thames to watch the operation and express their concern for the obviously wounded mammal. The barge carrying her had at least a 5-hour journey to the mouth of the sea before she could be released. As the whale’s vital signs were slipping, the BDMLR wasn’t sure she would make it.

As it turned out, she did not. While on the barge near the Kentish coast, the whale went into convulsions and died shortly after 7PM. The cause of death was dehydration, shock and kidney failure. The little whale’s swim up the Thames turned out to be her last. Her skeleton was ultimately preserved in a museum.

thames whale battersea bridge

Londoners came out of their offices and homes to watch the rescue efforts for the stranded whale. Here are crowds gathered on the Battersea Bridge.

Over the next few months and years, marine experts puzzled over the most obvious question about the incident: how did the whale get there, and why did she swim upstream? Whales are intelligent creatures, and the notable lack of previous incidents seems to indicate that they know urban waters in the UK (or anywhere, really) are likely to be fatal. Indeed, the whale’s autopsy noted several deep gashes in her body, probably caused by encounters with boats or the rocky shallow bottom of the Thames. She may have been confused by illness or perhaps environmental factors. Or, as often happens with humans despite our (supposed) intelligence, she may have just simply gotten lost, taking a wrong turn into the mouth of the Thames instead of back outwards toward the sea.

Curiously, there were some other incidents involving whales in British waters that strayed too close to land in the winter of 2006. In February alone there were two sperm whales that appeared on British beaches. Was there something unusual going on in the waters around the UK that winter that posed a particular threat to whales? Anomalies with the currents, sonar sound pollution or some other factor? We will probably never know, as the behavior of whales is not well understood; despite their intelligence they remain a mysterious species with which it is difficult for humans to make contact.

Incidents involving beached or stranded whales occur around the world every few years, and it’s very common for them to become sudden public spectacles, as the Thames whale did. After all, it’s only once in a generation–or more–that you can see a live whale in central London. These magnificent creatures tend to keep to themselves in the deep ocean. Given the usual outcome of encounters between human beings and whales–which has resulted in the severe depletion of whales around the world for the past few centuries–you can’t really blame them.

The photo of the crowds on the Battersea Bridge is by Wikimedia Commons user Shermozle and is used under GNU Free Documentation License.