Thames whale was trying to swim home - via Reading

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How about this for sad: she was trying to swim home, the Thames whale. Trying to swim home to the deep, deep waters of the north-east Atlantic. But she was trying to go via Maidenhead, Reading and Oxford.

Her direction - west - was spot on. But her route up the Thames as it narrowed through London and the towns and countryside of the Home Counties was way off.

The fact that the 19ft animal whose destiny moved much of Britain last week never really had a chance was revealed yesterday by the scientists and divers who took part in the attempted rescue.

The fate of the northern bottle-nosed whale, a young female about 11 years old, was probably sealed days before she provided Londoners with a riverside spectacle when she ended up in the North Sea, which contains none of the deepwater squid on which the species feeds.

According to Paul Jepson, the veterinary scientist from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) who is leading the post-mortem operation, she may have got there by taking a wrong turning around the northern tip of Scotland - and she then sensed that home lay to the west. But once she headed up the shallow Thames estuary, there was no way out.

There were historical records going back 200 years showing northern bottle-nosed whales had been stranded trying to go west up estuaries on the east coast, Dr Jepson said.

"There has been some speculation that loud man-made underwater noises, particularly anti-submarine sonars operated by the Navy may have been involved in the death of the whale. We think this is unlikely," he said. Even had the whale been released in the sea, it was by no means certain she would not have swum back up the river because of her disorientation.

A combination of factors was likely to be the cause of death, he said, including dehydration (the species gains water from food), muscle damage, and a reduction in kidney function. It would be some time before a conclusive cause of death could be given. Further tests were going on for bacterial and viral infections.

Becki Lawson of ZSL said the whale did not show any major signs of distress until half an hour before she died, when her condition deteriorated and her respiratory rate increased.