Legend of the London Whale: Lost and in distress, its plight touched the city and the world

The Thames was lined with crowds and camera crews as rescuers tried in vain to help the animal to the open sea. By Cole Moreton
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The Independent Online

The gentle, incongruous giant spotted swimming past the House of Commons on Friday had been rescued from the shallow, polluted waters of the Thames and given the best possible odds for survival. But as television pictures of the barge heading for Margate were broadcast around the world, it was announced that the whale had died.

Despite the supporting inflatables and a constant spray of water, it had not made it to release in the English Channel, as had been the plan. Aboard the barge out on the windswept Thames Estuary, vets were trying to decide whether to let the whale take its chances in the waters there. Then just after seven last night they revealed that the elaborate rescue bid had failed.

The 18ft northern bottlenosed whale should have been out in the Atlantic diving for squid. Instead, it had somehow wandered up river into the city late on Thursday, far from its mother who had been heard calling 40 miles away, off the coast of Essex.

Londoners lined the river to see it, but the plight of the whale captured imaginations all round the world, not least because its story had all the elements of a modern fairytale: the child lost and lonely in an alien and dangerous place; the desperate parent calling out, and the rescuers, who waded into the water and comforted the whale with their bare hands yesterday, before helping with its bid for freedom.

They were members of the charity British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), who put an inflatable pontoon under the whale and lift it by crane on to the PLA barge Crossness. As a deep sea creature, it needed to go to the Channel, where it could find food, or best of all the Atlantic. But as time wore on, those on board the barge faced what they called "an awful choice".

"The longer the whale stays on the barge - the further we go to get to deeper water - the more the animal's condition could deteriorate," said Tony Woodley of the BDMLR. The whale was being given antibiotics and its breathing rate monitored, but its muscles were stiffening.

"The animal has been in distress for the past couple of days," said Mr Woodley. "When it is out of the water for this length of time, the pressure on its internal organs is a problem." If the whale was released into the estuary there was still a chance it would swim back up river, or die quickly, he said. "We are pessimistic." They were right to be.

The first sighting of the whale had been on Thursday, when fishermen saw it out by the mouth of the Thames. Later that day it was spotted by staff at the Thames Barrier - which seems to have been no barrier at all. Then on Friday morning, a sharp-eyed rail commuter crossing a central London bridge looked out of the window and had the presence of mind to ring the authorities. "Unless I'm hallucinating," he said, "I've just seen a whale in the Thames."

This was no hallucination. Neither was it a dolphin: these visit London quite often. A dead harbour porpoise was found at Putney yesterday, by what appeared to be coincidence, although there was speculation that it might have been frightened into swimming up the Thames in the same way as the whale, possibly by naval sonar activity.

There were hopes that the whale would swim back out to sea on its own, then fears that it had died. But it was sighted again early yesterday morning by the blue and white PLA launch that then shadowed its progress up and down the river, between Battersea and Chelsea. At that time only a few spectators watched from the bridges and the riverside walks, although joggers did stop and turn off their iPods as they scanned the waters for it.

Londoners turn away from the river most of the time. The modern city is built with its back to the flowing water, but yesterday the level of attention being paid to the Thames rose even as the tide fell. Noon was the deadline: that was when the vets and marine biologists expected to be able to get close to the whale, as it beached in shallow water. Trying to catch it while it swam would be too dangerous, they said. Playing whale song from closer to the mouth of the river would not work because of the level of river noise.

It was a clear, bright day, but to listen for the calls and bellows of the whale was to become aware again of the traffic, the sirens, shouts, rumbling trains and thundering jets that form the soundtrack to city life, not to mention the police and news helicopters hovering at a respectful distance overhead.

Some risked the slippery steps to the shadow of high river walls where rubbish, old, twisted bicycles and the occasional body is found. Few who picked their way over the thick mud yesterday can have been on the beach before: two young women who whose pushchair wheels rapidly became clogged, will probably never go there again. But this was a day to remember.

"All this trouble for the sake of your childhood memories," a flustered man said to his screaming son, "and all you want to do is go to McDonald's. At least look!"

The children were mildly amused to see a huge animal surfacing to blow air in such an unlikely place. But it was the thousands of adults alongside them, lining the bridges and riverside walks, who watched for hours with childlike intensity.

The crowds had grown stronger when the whale suddenly made a dash upstream. Now engines roared and it was followed by the PLA launch, a rubber dinghy carrying biologists and other experts, a black unmarked inflatable and a tug chartered to carry reporters and photographers. On the shore, thousands of people did their best to follow: pulling their children along by the hands, breaking into a run, squelching over the beach or up at street level stepping right out in front of the traffic coming off the Albert Bridge, which was brought to a standstill. Shouts broke out every couple of minutes as the back of the whale broke the surface.

Why are we drawn to such creatures? The size is one thing, and the grace of movement as they slip through the water, but yesterday there was something profoundly moving and attractive about the combination of power and apparent gentleness. A flick of the tail could have capsized the dinghy, but whales are curious creatures that get themselves in trouble because they like to be friendly to boats. And above all there was the curiosity value.

A whale in the Thames is not something you see every century, let alone every day. The last sighting was in 1913.

"Get back!" screamed a woman in a black rubber suit from the water as a member of the public waded in, intent on helping to rescue the whale which had become beached at low tide. "Get back you fool!" shouted her colleague, and the man slowly waded embarrassed. As the water level dropped, 18 people in rubber suits surrounded the whale, which bellowed and thrashed its tail but then became quite and still. The hands were to calm it. Yellow bands were passed under its body, then inflated.

Mark Stevens of the BDMLR waded ashore to tell the crowds, "The whale is comfortable; it likes the pressure of the pontoons. The blood you saw in the water is because the river bed is full of dirty great boulders, and one of them cut the skin, but a whale has a lot of blood, so it is nothing to worry about."

They were waiting for the results of blood tests taken in the river, he said. But as the ride rose again it became a race against time. After a certain time the barge would not have enough room to pass under the bridges. So the Crossness set off without the test results, in the hope that the whale would be declared fit enough to be set free. "Go on, fella," whispered a policeman, as he helped clear spectators off the rapidly shrinking beach. "Best of luck."

THE SIGHTINGS

11am Thursday: first sighting of a northern bottlenosed whale near Dagenham rouses national interest

3pm Thursday: as it passes the Thames Barrier, spectators start to line riverbanks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the creature

2pm Friday: whale spotted by the Palace of Westminster. The last time that a live whale was seen in the Thames was in 1913

2:30pm Friday: the whale continues to swim upstream against a strong current, reached Albert Bridge then appears to turn back, raising hopes that it might head downstream to the sea of its own volition. It soon becomes clear that it is disorientated

12:30pm yesterday: rescuers attach the beached whale to floating pontoons before towing it towards a barge, on to which it was lifted by crane

3:45pm yesterday: the barge carrying the whale, the 'Crossness', set off for the Thames estuary. But the whale's health deteriorates. Unable to support its own weight out of the water, it starts to suffocate

5pm: with regret medics cancel their appeal for an ocean-going vessel to take the whale out to sea, having decided it is now too ill to be transported to the Atlantic

7:15pm: the whale is reported to have died

JOURNEY HOME

From dawn, experts fought to return the stranded mammal to open water

08.10 The sighting

After the first sighting, in the Albert Bridge area, rescuers try to take control of the 15ft adolescent whale. An attempt is made to assess its health for possible transport to outside the Thames Estuary. They also weigh up the option of a mercy killing if it is too ill to travel.

12.30 The wrapping

At low tide, rescuers wrap the whale in a blanket and cocoon it between floating pontoons for transport. As the whale thrashes around in distress, attempts are made to assess its breathing rate. Blood and blubber samples are taken. Rescuers lubricate its eyes and blow-holes.

13.09 The calming

Medics soothe the animal before giving the go-ahead for it to be dragged gently towards a barge that will take it out of the crowded Thames. No decision has yet been made on whether it it is well enough to be released, or needs to be put out of its misery.

14.35 The lifting

Bystanders cheer as rescuers brave cold and fast-moving currents to manoeuvre slings under the animal's belly and lift it on to the barge. It is uncertain the exhausted whale will survive this traumatic event, but everything goes like clockwork and there is hope it may see it through.

15:50 The journey begins

Vets assess the whale's health as better than they had feared during its arduous journey on the barge towards the estuary. But they are still unsure whether they will be in a position to release it into the Channel, or have to transport it further out to open water.

Around 20.00 An uncertain end

After all the effort, spirits sink as the medics report their grim news: the whale is too ill to be transferred to another vessel for a second leg out to the Atlantic. Instead, the plan was to release it into the Channel - a worrying finale to a story that has touched the nation.

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