A birdwatcher might be a bit surprised to see a rare species, but Consulting Ecologist and Ornithologist Dave Andrews was more than surprised on the afternoon of Sept. 25 when he saw a whale.
Andrews was scanning for sea birds of England’s Thames River when he spotted a large white shape in the water.
Looking closer, he was able to identify it as a beluga whale.
“Can’t believe I’m writing this, no joke—BELUGA in the Thames off Coalhouse Fort,” Andrews tweeted.
For anyone twitching the #BELUGA its been feeding around the barges (see last tweet for location) for the last hour and hasn't moved more than 200m in either direction. Still present. Heres another video @RareBirdAlertUK pic.twitter.com/S2qxKJyuuD
— Dave Andrews (@iPterodroma) September 25, 2018
Belugas are primarily Arctic whales, which rarely range much south of the 60th parallel. They grow to be about 18 feet long, and often travel in pods.
This poor whale appeared to be lost.
Lucy Babey, head of science and conservation at ORCA, told the Mirror, “This is the most southerly sighting of a beluga we have ever seen around these shores.”
“The last sighting in UK waters was in 2015 when they were spotted near the Northumberland coastline, but they left shortly afterward. Belugas usually travel in pods but this creature could have separated for a number of reasons,” Babey said.
“It’s possible that the animal could be disorientated after becoming unwell. Storms or environmental disturbances may also have contributed,” she said.
Danny Groves, from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) told the Telegraph the same thing.
“This is a High Arctic species thousands of miles from where it should be in Greenland, Svalbard, or the Barents Sea, they are usually associated close to the ice. He or she is obviously very lost and quite possibly in trouble.”
The whale’s behavior seemed to support the idea that it was in distress. Observers told the Telegraph that the whale was swimming around in a very small area near Tilbury Dock, one of London’s major ports, and apparently eating something near some barges there.
There is some question about what it might be eating.
Wildlife expert Lee Evans told the Telegraph, “It’s in grave danger. It’s stuck next to a buoy, only coming up to breathe. It was a lot more active earlier. It’s either stuck or there’s something wrong with it.”
“Last weekend there was a great big wind from the north which probably pushed it down here. They only ever come to these narrow estuaries when there’s something very wrong. The Thames is far too warm for it and I doubt it can feed,” he added.
Tanya Ferry, environment manager at the Port of London Authority that is monitoring the whale, told the BBC it was unclear what the whale could eat.
“If they are eating things like jellyfish, we don’t tend to have a great deal of jellyfish in the Thames, but we do have quite a lot of plastic bags, which could be quite an issue,” she said.
“We’re hoping if we give it enough space and keep an eye on it, it will find its own way out of the Thames to an environment that’s more appropriate for it. We certainly don’t want people trying to rescue it,” she said.
Belugas navigate by echolocation—they send sonar signals into the ocean and listen for the echoes. If the Thames is too noisy, the whale might not be able to figure out which way leads back out to sea.
Meanwhile, news of the rare sighting has drawn people from across the country.
Birdwatcher Gary Taylor, 50, took the day off from his job as a property developer and traveled from neighboring Kent to see the whale.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he told the Telegraph. “I’ve been out here just watching it for two hours. This is completely unprecedented. You’d usually have to go to the Arctic to see this.”
Naturalist Rupert Kaye, 58, traveled from Putney in London to see the whale.
“I heard about it at lunchtime and have never seen anything like this,” he told the Telegraph. “I saw the bottlenose whale in the Thames a few years ago but this is on another level. You’d have to travel to the far, far north to see this usually.”
“I’ve seen some great views of it. They’re highly intelligent and have great navigational skills but who knows if it’ll find its way home,” he said.