Thames whale: Why 'Benny' the beluga is a symbol of a global catastrophe no one is talking about

'The worry is that when it's left the Thames again then everything goes back as it was before'

Beluga whale spotted in River Thames

As Benny the beluga splashed around in the Thames – entirely unaware that it was now perhaps the world's most famous whale – the researchers and divers watching on from the bank nearby found their joy at the bizarre sight tinged with a distinct and almost resigned sadness.

"When something turns up on your doorstep, it gives a different immediacy to it," says Samuel Turvey, between glimpses of a spectacle resembling a ghostly, animated inner tube.

He is one of the many ecologists and campaigners who hope that this intimate visit from a beluga can spur widespread concern about the desperate plight of other whales and dolphins around the world.

Mr Turvey has spent his career tracking similarly stunning white animals – until they die out, an entire species at a time, such as the Yangtze river dolphin he watched until it disappeared. He and other experts know all too well the destruction that awaits the other whales and dolphins who have been wiped out by the same factors people fear Benny could ultimately fall victim to in its unusual new habitat.

While the animal may be considered a pioneer as the first beluga whale ever seen in the Thames, the threats it faces are all too familiar to the people working to save it.

The vast ships that pass through the Thames – and which are being directed around by volunteer divers – are just a fraction of the shipping traffic that threatens sea life around the world.

Similarly, many pointed at the mucky water of the Thames and feared that Benny would be unable to survive in such a polluted place. But in other locations in the world, belugas are swimming in water so unclean that they must be treated as toxic waste when they come ashore.

For now Benny appears to have found a source of food and is eating it happily. But if that runs out, it could suffer the same fate as relatives elsewhere in the world, where climate change is leading to food scarcity that is pushing whales and dolphins to take ever more desperate measures.

Exactly that kind of disruption to food supply is leading the animals into different environments with wholly new threats, says Lucy Babey, head of science and conservation at ORCA, which protects whales and dolphins in UK and European waters.

"Whales and dolphins across the globe face an array of different threats and each habitat brings its own challenges," she told The Independent. "However, sadly many of the threats they face are a global issue and cause thousands of animals to die each year."

On the riverbank, the ecologists and conservationists were just one part of a large crowd that turned out to spot Benny – there was an array of international journalists alongside the many families hoping for a look.

"This is what people always do – they fixate on an individual, rather than a species as a whole. And this is interesting, because it's a particularly unusual species to turn up, and it's good that it's getting that focus," says Mr Turvey, a researcher at the Zoological Society of London and a world expert on conservation and extinctions who had travelled from Bristol to see the strange sight.

"But all the cetaceans that are usually found in freshwater are all incredibly threatened. And so this is making that issue close to home; everyone's worried about the shipping, is it getting disturbed? Well in the big river systems like the Ganges and the Yangtze, you've got 10, 100 times this level of disturbance facing entire species."

We hope Benny the beluga will make his way safely home. But Benny’s Arctic home is in meltdown

Rod Downie, polar chief adviser at WWF

The only white cetacean found in a freshwater system should be the Yangtze River dolphin, he says. Except such a sighting will not happen – the species was officially declared extinct 10 years ago, killed off by overfishing and pollution.

Mr Turvey happened to work on the first scientific study that did not find a single one of the dolphins, and his frustration with the failure to generate much concern about its demise is clear. He is hopeful but not entirely optimistic that Benny's arrival could change that.

"The worry is that when it's left the Thames again then everything goes back as it was before," he says.

"And no wider attention is on freshwater cetacean conservation issues – they're now one of the most threatened groups of species in the world, because freshwater systems are just so heavily used by people. This is nothing compared to Asia, but there is still industry everywhere. It'd be good if this could be used as a tip of the iceberg for that."

As Mr ​Turvey speaks, volunteers from British Divers Marine Life Rescue are chugging up and down the Thames in a small boat. They keep watch over Benny, while preparing to rescue it if something does go wrong.

Alan Knight, chair of the organisation, was present the last time a famous whale found itself stuck in the Thames. That time, more than a decade ago, the whale died despite the very best efforts of trained divers.

That was just the most famous excursion for the organisation. But its volunteers work hard throughout the year, rescuing other less media-friendly marine animals like seals in distress or birds threatened by oil spills.

Rescuers manoeuvre a northern bottle-nosed whale as it spends its second day in the Thames in January 2006 (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

Mr Knight says that the famous rescue in the Thames was an important moment for BDMLR, which used it as an opportunity to learn and bolster its protocols for rescuing animals, and to improve its policy on how such endangered animals should be dealt with.

"The fact that the London whale in 2006 was so well publicised did a lot of good for whales – whenever I go anywhere, they all know that whale," he says. "It can only be good."

Many other whales die without the same fame, in far more horrific circumstances.

Mr Knight and organisations such as Sea Shepherd have been monitoring the slaughter of pilot whales and dolphins in the Faroe Islands, for instance, where every year up to 1,000 of the animals are brutally killed during their migration.

With little of the same exposure enjoyed by Benny, whales are hunted and driven onto land, before being slit down to their spinal cord and then bleeding out on the shore.

Pilot whale carcasses on the quay in Jatnavegur on the Faroe Islands (AFP/Getty)

Benny has escaped such a fate, but he is not free from risk. The ships that are being encouraged away from the whale by Knight's organisation are just a reminder of the kind of threats that would face it anywhere else in the world.

The boats passing by are a reminder that many cetaceans are hit by strikes in all different environments. There is also the problem of plastic in our oceans, which threatens to completely wipe out iconic species such as killer whales.

What drove Benny here in the first place could have been noise pollution, which is a particular threat to deeper diving species and animals that use echolocation to get around. The harsh rumble of big ships can throw them off course, which might be what happened to Benny.

"The Thames beluga whale story has caused great interest in recent days and we hope that this is one with a happy ending," says Danny Groves, from the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

"But the little beluga’s huge detour has place him or her in danger and even if he or she manages to make it back out to the North Sea and beyond, this whale faces more of the threats that other species of whale, and dolphin, face around the globe each and every day.

"While we watch this beluga swimming free in the Thames, it is worth remembering that many belugas have been captured and placed in small tanks for our 'entertainment'. As Benny or Bella the beluga has demonstrated, by drifting so far off course, whales and dolphins are wide ranging creatures and can travel many, many miles each day. They are not suited to a miserable, shortened life in captivity."

Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, says: "It’s unbelievably exciting to see a Beluga whale in our own backyard, however, our fascination in these incredible creatures should provoke some difficult questions about what exactly it’s doing so far from home?

"The warming waters of the Arctic Ocean are the most serious threat they are facing – potentially forcing them to search further afield for their food. These warming waters and the retreating ice are also leading to a growing industrialisation of the Arctic, bringing with it huge amounts of noise pollution that can affect the whales’ ability to find their way, winding up many miles from their icy home.

"Added to increasing plastic and chemical pollution, Belugas may have a tough time ahead. We know that a large-scale network of ocean sanctuaries where human activity is put completely off limits would help fish stocks recover and make the ocean more resilient to climate change – safeguarding the home of the Beluga whale. It might mean we see less of them around our coast, but in this case, that’s probably a good thing."

Even home isn't such a safe place for belugas like Benny, however. The whales' natural habitat is becoming less and less homely all the time.

“We hope Benny the beluga will make his way safely home," says Rod Downie, polar chief adviser at WWF. But Benny’s Arctic home is in meltdown. The last twelve summers have seen the twelve lowest sea ice levels in nearly four decades of satellite records. This ‘new norm’ is having profound effects on people and nature in the Arctic. But the climates of UK and the Arctic are closely connected.

"We need to tackle climate change head-on with deep and rapid cuts to our carbon emissions. That means a complete end of our contribution to climate change by 2050.”

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