In our fourth blog on whales who captured the attention of the world and the hearts of people, we take a closer look at the Thames Whale.  

Over the years, a few whales have taken a wrong turn and travelled up the river Thames in London. But the most memorable occasion – which had millions of people transfixed – was in January 2006 when a northern bottlenose whale appeared in the river.   

First sighting 

A report was first received on the evening of 19 January of two whales going up the Thames but only one was spotted afterwards and it was soon thought to have gone back to the sea.  

However, the next morning, members of the public reported seeing a whale going up the river near Waterloo Bridge.  

Northern bottlenose whales are usually seen in the north Atlantic off Norway and also off northern UK and Ireland in the summer months.  

This whale should have been in the North Sea but had taken a wrong turn into a major river through a capital city. Not something that Londoners would see every day!  

Rather than being in the saltwater it was used to in the sea, it was now travelling through freshwater. Northern bottlenose whales look like very large bottlenose dolphins and are usually quite inquisitive, interacting with boats.  

The whale – thought not to be fully grown yet – was initially observed to be in good health, was breathing normally and seemed quite relaxed.  

However, experts were concerned that it mightn’t make its way back to the sea under its own steam and that it could become beached or stranded in the river.  

Indeed, at one stage early on, the whale came close to becoming beached on the riverbank but a few members of the public jumped into the river, splashing around to encourage it to move back into deeper waters.  

A small flotilla of boats – including a harbourmaster’s vessel – kept a watch on the whale and tried to turn it around to head downstream.  

The media quickly covered the story of the whale, who was affectionately named ‘Willy’ by the public though it later turned out to be a female rather than a male.  

Thames Whale

Dangers to the whale 

There was concern that boats in the river were a threat to the whale, because of possible collisions and because engine noise could disorientate the animal. At one point, vessel traffic was halted on the river, the first time that had happened in London since Winston Churchill’s funeral. 

As the day of 20 January went on, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue organisation released a statement saying Willy was showing increasing signs of poor health and that because there was currently a flood tide, the whale could become stranded when the tide changed.  

Quickly, a plan was developed for this outcome, so that the whale could be re-floated using specialist inflatable pontoon equipment and then be directed back towards the sea.  

Thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to catch a sight of the whale and some were treated to the sight of it spouting through its blow hole.  

Rescue attempt  

As a new day dawned on 21 January, millions of people around the world followed the rescue journey of the whale via rolling TV news, radio and the internet. Collectively, everyone kept their fingers crossed for a good result for the Thames Whale.  

After she had stranded herself, she was transported on a barge towards deeper water in the Thames Estuary, with the hope of releasing her back to sea. But as time passed, concern for her health grew as her condition deteriorated and she began convulsing. 

Despite the best efforts of the rescue crew, the whale sadly died.  

Thames Whale

What happened next? 

Veterinary experts from the Zoological Society of London carried out a post-mortem examination. It revealed that the whale was a juvenile female, less than 11 years old, and measured 5.85 metres in length.  

She died as a result of a number of factors including muscle damage due to the stranding, severe dehydration and organ failure. She had not been suffering from a disease to cause her to become disorientated. 

“Sadly, as is the case with many stranded whales and dolphins, a combination of factors was likely to be the cause of death,” said Paul Jepson, who carried out the post-mortem.  

“Those factors include severe dehydration, some muscle damage, and reduction in kidney function. The animal, once entering the North Sea, would not have been able to feed, and this is the likely cause of the dehydration.” 

Since 1913, scientists from the Natural History Museum have had priority access to the carcasses of whales, dolphins and porpoises that wash ashore on UK coastlines. Many of them aren’t in good enough condition for post-mortem exam and most end up going to landfill for disposal as it isn’t possible for the Museum to collect every specimen.  

In this case, though, the Museum prepared the whale’s skeleton for scientific study and it was also on display to visitors on several occasions. 

Why the Thames Whale made such an impact on people has been explored over the years – some say it is a reminder to everyone that the wild is not so far from our own doorsteps and that the whale’s experience is emblematic of the state of the world’s oceans.  

At the time, Paul Jepson said, “The Thames whale has demonstrated the tremendous interest and wonder expressed in whales and dolphins by the global public, and hopefully highlights the need and desire to conserve wildlife species in general.” 

Ten years after the Thames Whale appearance, there was a commemorative march in London, organised by artists. The group said that a decade on, they wanted to celebrate the whale and help its memory to survive as they knew it was important to so many people.  

Check out previous blogs in the series:

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Keiko 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Migaloo 

Whales That Made a Mark on the World: Tokitae