Whale Swims through Downtown London
By Erika Pennington
posted: 20 January:23 pm ET
LONDON (AP)—It's a whale of a tale—a bottle-nosed whale swimming up the River Thames past Big Ben and Parliament as rows of worried spectators looked on Friday.
The northern bottle-nosed whale was spotted in the afternoon—the first sighting in the river since 1913—as it flailed around the murky waters of the Thames, stirring up patches of what looked like blood as seagulls hovered above and rescue boats stood on the ready.
Witnesses reported seeing a second whale in another part of the river Friday, and marine experts spotted two disoriented whales in northeastern Scotland last week, suggesting there was something causing the bottle-nosed whales to become disoriented.
"It is a race against time to save the animal,'' said Alison Shaw, marine and freshwater conservation program manager at the Zoological Society of London.
A small armada of boats was planning to help the whale late Friday at high tide. One of the boats was equipped with a cradle in case the creature beached itself. It was unclear how long the whale could survive in the city's river.
Witnesses have reported seeing injuries to the whale, claiming its snout was bloodied. Photos also appeared to show damage to one of the whale's eyes and a number of cuts to its torso. It has already beached itself at least twice Friday.
Several onlookers jumped into the river's 9 degree Celsius (48 degree Fahrenheit) water—after the mammal emerged, splashing to coax it away from shore. Members of the Whale Watch conservation group also ferried across the river to assess the mammal's condition.
The whale—which is about 17 feet long (5 meters long)—is normally seen in the deep northern Atlantic, diving deeply and traveling in pods. They can reach lengths of 8 meters (26 feet)—the size of a traditional red double-decker London bus.
When sick, old or injured, whales often get disoriented and swim off from their pod, said Mark Simmonds, science director at Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, although witnesses reported seeing a second whale in a different section of the river Friday.
Last week marine officials said they saw two bottle-nosed whales in northeastern Scotland when the mammals are normally seen in northwestern Scotland. That, coupled with the second sighting Friday, could suggest that something is disrupting the whales, said Laila Sadler, scientific officer at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
There are many possible reasons whales become disoriented. Scientists have said fluctuating ocean temperatures, predators, lack of food and even sonar from ships can send them into waters that are dangerous for the mammals.
Friday's whale drew hundreds of people and scores of television crews to the river's banks. Most television screens carried pictures for most of day, captivating Londoners who called radio and television stations asking if they could help.
Tom Howard-Vyne, a spokesman for London Eye—the large Ferris wheel on the southern bank—said he saw the mammal swim under Westminster Bridge, near Big Ben.
"I saw it blow. It was a spout of water which sparkled in the air,'' he said. "It was an amazing sight.''
It was the first time a northern bottlenose has been sighted in the Thames since the Natural History Museum began recording such sightings in 1913, museum zoologist Richard Sabin said.
He said northern bottlenose whales rarely swim in water as shallow as the Thames, which has an average depth of between 8 meters (26 feet) and 6 meters (20 feet).
A minke whale was sighted in the Thames about six years ago, but not as far upstream.
"I am very concerned for the safety of this animal at the moment, particularly if boat traffic increases in the river,'' said Laila Sadler, scientific officer at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.