Joan Smith: This pointless sentimentality over a whale

The Thames whale was not on its holidays, a gentle giant curious to learn
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The Independent Online

How could they have been so deluded? When a northern bottlenosed whale appeared in the Thames towards the end of last week, it unwittingly created a carnival atmosphere on the banks of the river, drawing thousands of spectators. Just like the city's credulous medieval inhabitants, Londoners flocked to the location of the latest sighting, some of them venturing on to the shingle to get a better view. They leaned over bridges and cheered the creature when it surfaced, willing it to turn round and head back to sea where its mother was said to have been calling off the Essex coast.

The day the whale came to London quickly became a JFK moment as parents old enough to remember the President's assassination - or to have heard about it from their own parents, more likely - instructed bemused youngsters that this was something they would remember all their lives. Goodwill messages poured in from all over the world, although the exact mechanism - how does someone in Auckland or Jakarta go about sending good wishes to an 18-foot whale? - was not revealed. Photographers chartered a tug to follow its progress, although politicians kept well away, resisting the lure of a photo opportunity that might go badly wrong.

For a while this outpouring of sentimentality and anthropomorphism was expected to work wonders, but eventually someone tore up the feel-good script and the animal died on a barge carrying it downriver towards the open sea. Whether it should ever have been lifted from the water, adding to its confusion and possibly prolonging its suffering, is a question that will be answered by a veterinary post-mortem. But well before the carcase had been thoroughly examined, a more urgent enquiry was under way, this time to discover consolations in an episode that had been misunderstood - wilfully so, in my view - from the very beginning.

The Thames whale was not on its holidays, a gentle giant curious to learn about life on these unfamiliar shores. From the moment it appeared, it should have been obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense that the creature was in serious trouble, too large and unwieldy to negotiate the shallow river water in which it found itself. The most likely scenario, unless it somehow defied the odds, turned round and swam out to sea unaided, was that it would become injured, distressed and expire.

So what did they imagine they were doing, all those spectators who lined the banks, held up their children and made knowing jokes about pods and iPods? Who made lots of noise as this most sensitive of mammals flapped, panicked and injured itself on submerged boulders? Since it expired on Saturday evening, their sensibilities have been soothed by a series of confected narratives designed to confirm that the Thames whale did not die in vain.

According to one interpretation, the episode has revealed something about human nature, even if it is only Londoners' restraint in not stoning the poor animal to death; according to another, its tragic demise has raised consciousness about the plight of its cousins, who may now be saved from evil Japanese whalers. Why, it may even turn out that it was on a mission, a one-whale protest followed by a dramatic suicide. It's not just us humans who have an interest in the environment, you know.

The lessons I draw are much darker. I don't know how many people following the whale's contortions in the Thames had watched Free Willy, that low point in Hollywood history in which a street kid befriends an orca whale, but they certainly behaved as though they had. There is a persistent myth in our culture about the special relationship between children and animals which has led to a lot of abandoned puppies and miserable hamsters in cages, and last weekend's events seem to have been regarded, bizarrely, as the perfect family outing. Maybe some of the kids on the riverbank learnt an unintended lesson about nature, but it seems more likely that their parents will have found a way to protect them from reality.

The other impulse that drew people to this spectacle was, I suspect, the same one that makes them superstitious about walking under ladders. In an uncertain age, when we have just witnessed an above-average occurrence of natural disasters, it is all too easy to attach meaning to random events. Nature has had a bad press over the last year, but here was that most wondrous of portents, a visitor from the natural world which delighted rather than frightened. If we follow this logic through, the creature's death could be interpreted as a bad omen. But the real message for humans is that we should never underestimate the difficulty inherent in such apparently simple tasks as saving the whale.