Fears grow for two-ton whale seen in Thames

First there was astonishment, then there was delight and then, last night, there was deepening anxiety at the most peculiar sight central London has seen in many a day ­ a whale in the Thames.

People gawped. They called to each other and phoned each other. And some of them cheered as the northern bottle-nosed whale, a magnificent creature of the deep ocean, swam past the Tower of London, the London Eye and the Palace of Westminster, to come to rest off Cheyne Walk in Chelsea.

People crowded the banks of London's river to watch, as if it were the Boat Race. Those who were away from the Thames crowded around TVs in offices and pubs to watch it live on screen, to see its great 20ft long, two-ton form surface and blow, surface and blow, for all the world as if it were west of the Shetlands rather than in SW1.

The Thames has the odd seal swim right up the river. It even has the occasional porpoise and dolphin. But never in living memory has leviathan himself graced the capital with his presence. It had a sense of wonder all its own.

There didn't seem to be any big reason behind it. It was hardly climate change. Or even the much-vaunted improvement in Thames water quality. It was just one of those things.

But the very thing that made the sight peculiarly gripping ­ a giant beast being so obviously in the wrong place ­ was what last night held the seeds of a tragedy likely to be played out before an anxiously watching nation. Expert opinion was pessimistic: the chances of London's whale getting back to sea were slim.

Consider: this particular specimen of Hyperoodon ampullatus should be a world away off the continental shelf, diving 600ft down for squid, not anywhere near the coast ­ never mind 40 miles up a comparatively narrow, shallow and polluted river swept by hugely powerful tides.

Last night, the whale disappeared from view for several hours. Then, an unconfirmed sighting in Greenwich brought a glimmer of hope that it was heading seaward, but after divers failed to find the mammal, they ceased the search operation for the night. Save for a handful of dedicated volunteers planning to man the banks of the Thames, they were not due to resume until daybreak today.

According to Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum, it was possible that the whale was weakened, perhaps through parasite infection, and had been pulled up the river from the estuary by the force of the incoming tide. While in the river, he said, it would be unable to feed, as it was adapted to hunt specialised prey, and so would grow constantly weaker. Fresh water would eventually blister its skin.

It was possibly disoriented by the noise and activity of the busy river and risked beaching itself ­ indeed it did so twice, briefly, yesterday afternoon, in the neighbourhood of the Albert Bridge as the low tide uncovered the Thames foreshore. It was pushed off again by marine mammal medics from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue centre. But the animal seemed to have injured itself during one of its beachings and blood could be seen clouding the Thames.

A British Divers Marine Life rescue boat was on standby should any further sightings be reported, but last night they admitted that they were extremely concerned about its condition.

The chairman of the group, Alan Knight,warned that even if the whale were located, a rescue operation might not succeed. "A vet will assess the whale, and if it is viable then we will use lifting pontoons and a mat and lift it with a crane to take it back to the estuary," he said. " But if it beaches and is not in a fit condition to go back, then we will put it to sleep. Everyone wants it to be released, but if it is the right thing to euthanise the animal, then we will."

The whale was first spotted by a Port of London authority launch at 11am on Thursday off Dagenham, east London. Another whale, thought to be of the same species, was also seen during the morning, off Southend.

Then at 3pm on Thursday it was seen by staff at the Thames Barrier at Woolwich. Eyebrows were really raised, however, yesterday morning when it appeared right in the middle of the capital. "At 8.30am today we got a phone call from someone on a train who thought they had just hallucinated and seen a whale going up the Thames near Waterloo Bridge," said Mr Knight.

A deep sea diver that's as long as a bus

* The northern bottle-nosed whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus, can grow to be the length of a traditional London bus, 33ft, with females about 24ft.

* The worldwide population is not known, but they were seriously depleted by whaling during the last century.

* They are not currently hunted but can get caught up by trawls for other species.

* They swim in family groups of up to 10, with a male typically accompanied by several females and offspring.

* Killing or harming any in British waters is illegal.

* They are believed to be the deepest-diving species of whale, but like all mammals are unable to breathe underwater.

* They have only two teeth, and eat squid, starfish and herring.

* Part of the beaked whales family, they are easily identifiable by their rounded bodies and bulbous foreheads.

* Although they are occasionally sighted off the north-west coast of Scotland, they prefer the deep, cold waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.

* They are thought to live to an average age of 37.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Sport
Moeen Ali wearing the 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' wristbands on his left arm
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Extras
indybest
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager,Conduct Risk,London,£5-600pd

£500 - £600 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

PMO Manager (Portfolio Management, ExCel, Cost Benefit Analysis)

£450 - £500 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: PMO Manager - 6 month co...

Senior Fund Administrator - Edinburgh - £22 p/hr

£20 - £22 per hour + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Fund Administrator, Top Four ...

Nursery Nurse

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a better wo...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on