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Whale of a Good Show in London

The bottle-nosed mammal delights onlookers as it swims up the Thames. But worries grow about its odds of getting back out to sea.

January 21, 2006|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — For a city that likes to think it has seen most everything, the spectacle Friday of a whale swimming past Parliament and the Millennium Eye and on up the Thames to the posh precincts around Chelsea, 40 miles from the nearest sea, just about took the pudding.

Thousands of people lined the riverbanks on a sunny day to catch a glimpse of the 15-foot-long bottle-nosed whale, which had a white-gray protruding brow, as commentators on television debated whether it was old or young, how it had come to enter the Thames estuary and its likely fate. Many feared that the 4-ton behemoth was ill, confused or weak and that it could be unable to find its way back to the sea.

At one stage, when the whale seemed to have stranded itself in the shallows near the Battersea Power Station, a man in street clothes nonchalantly waded into the river and shooed and splashed the animal to coax it back to deeper water.

Although dolphins have been seen in the Thames before, there was no such record of a whale since the Museum of Natural History began compiling such statistics 113 years ago.

Helicopters hovered overhead and boats were used to try to keep the whale from continuing to swim upriver, where the water becomes progressively shallower and less salty.

Alan Knight of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue group, said he feared the whale might be ill and had come to beach itself to die.

Volunteers were standing by to try to intervene if the whale stopped swimming freely.

If the whale is assessed as healthy, Knight said, the volunteers will try to keep it afloat with pontoons, place it in a launch and take it out to sea.

But if they determine that the mammal is too sick to live, he told Britain's Press Assn., "we will euthanize it and consider it a success because it has not caused any more suffering."

Northern bottle-nosed whales normally live in the northern Atlantic Ocean near the edge of the continental shelves. The deep-ocean mammals hunt squid and fish and are known for their ability to swim to great depths and stay submerged for as long as one hour.

The whale in the Thames, however, was staying near the surface and spouting water from its blowhole every few minutes.

As news of the whale's presence spread, people left their homes and offices to come out and see it from embankments and bridges. Television news showed little else.

The creature spent the morning doggedly plowing its way up the murky Thames at low tide as marine rescuers worked to turn it around, but by Friday evening it was still in West London, near fashionable Chelsea's Albert Bridge.

Peter Evans of the Sea Watch Foundation speculated that the whale was sick or that it had been tempted up the river by a school of fish.

Leah Garces of the World Society for the Protection of Animals said it might have been separated from its mother.

There were sightings of a second whale near Southend-on-Sea, at the mouth of the Thames in Essex, prompting speculation that it had become separated from the whale that swam upriver.

Knight said two whales had been sighted Thursday evening beyond the Thames Barrier at the mouth of the river. Divers thought they had diverted the animals out to sea, but at 8:30 a.m. Friday, a London train commuter phoned Knight to say that he might be hallucinating, but he had just seen a whale in the Thames.

Charlotte Giddings, a 25-year-old civil servant who contacted the Times of London website, said she was among the first to see it crossing under Westminster Bridge, next to Parliament, about 9:15 a.m.

"At this point there were no boats and no other people watching, so I thought it was probably a piece of wood. But then it rose up further out of the water blowing water out of its spout.

"It was so bizarre -- all these commuters were marching past behind me and I was looking down at a whale," she said in her posting.

"I am going whale-watching in Scotland in March and am pretty sure I won't see anything as close as that," Giddings said.

*

Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.

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