As crowds gathered along the banks of the Thames around Teddington weir to catch a glimpse of the little whale that had lost its way upriver, the mood gradually became tinged with sadness at the realisation that the baby minke would probably never make it back out to sea.
The calf had first got stranded on Richmond lock’s boat rollers on Sunday evening. It was finally freed by rescue teams around 1am but wriggled free from the inflatable rescue raft and went missing, before being spotted again in Teddington late on Monday morning.
It later got stuck in shallow waters for a second time at Teddington weir, where it became entangled in vines and “very distressed”, according to the British Divers Marine Life Rescue service (BDMLR). As its condition continued to deteriorate, it was clear that the injured whale, which had become completely stationary in the water, could not be saved. It will be put down by vets on Monday evening.
Members of the public had braved wind and rain to cram along the bridge and riverbank throughout the afternoon, hoping to spot its grey dorsal fin poking through the dark swirling waters. Two helicopters flew overhead while a crew from the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) monitored the situation. One ambitious onlooker even ventured out in a kayak hoping for a closer look at the small whale, measuring around four metres in length.
“I’m so invested in this poor little whale,” said Sheila, who had jumped in a cab from her home in Kingston when she heard the whale had been resighted nearby. She had spent almost four hours in Richmond the night before watching the rescue operation. “It makes me so sad, it really is just completely lost. It must be really distressed and all this fuss with the helicopters can’t be helping. I just hope it survives.”
Also watching from the bridge was Jaz, who wondered if wildlife wandering too far up the Thames was becoming more frequent or if it only seemed so because of social media. The Thames path had been her salvation during lockdown and walking along this stretch of the river almost every single day had made her appreciate the wildlife more and more. “You do see seals occasionally bobbing their heads up out of the water, it’s lovely to see them but they really should be back out at sea," sy het gese.
Another woman who had paused her bike ride to catch a glimpse of the whale concurred. She had been one of the first to spot Freddie the seal months ago when he was first rescued at the lock. Back in March the seal pup had to be put down after he was mauled by a dog as he basked along the tow path near Hammersmith Bridge. “It’s such a shame this keeps happening. This whale has got so lost, the poor thing, and now it’s run out of river I don’t see how it can be saved. It doesn’t seem like there’s much they can do.”
It was the furthest up the Thames a whale had ever gone, according to the BDMLR. There had been hope that with the tide rising the whale might have been able to swim back downriver, and the RNLI crew did all it could to monitor the whale’s behaviour and condition, while trying to encourage it into deeper waters back towards Richmond.
But it was clear by Monday afternoon that there was not much else that could be done for the animal, which was in poor nutritional health having not eaten for some time, had lost a lot of energy and had also sustained injuries from two strandings, the BDMLR said.
Given the poor prognosis and its location so far into the Thames, there was no hope of getting the whale back out to sea and the decision was taken to put it down to prevent it suffering any further. “They’re going to put the whale to sleep. It’s suffering quite badly, it has been for about the last 45 minute,” said Julia Cable, national co-ordinator at BDMLR, on Monday evening.
“The vets are here from Londen zoo. They will give the whale a large anaesthetic dose which will put it to sleep. The whale shouldn’t feel anything.”
Minke whales are the most common whale species in UK waters. It is thought the youngster could have got separated from its mother and become disoriented in the Thames estuary.
Reports of cetacean strandings over the last few years were relatively stable, the BDMLR said, with any increases likely down to heightened awareness and reporting, and river strandings remain unusual.
The last minke whale in the Thames was found in Battersea in 2019, but other cases from recent years include Benny the beluga who was spotted near Gravesend and a humpback whale that died after being hit by a ship.