Beluga Whale In The Thames: A Rare Sighting Of An Arctic Marine Mammal In England

Beluga Whale in the Thames: An Active Wild report on the recent sighting of a beluga whale in the River Thames, England.

*** Thames Beluga Update ***

The beluga is still present in the River Thames as of Weds 10th October. Experts monitoring its welfare believe it to be healthy. It is hoped that the animal will eventually make its way back to the sea without help.

River Thames Beluga

The video below shows footage of the River Thames beluga whale.

There may have been an autumn chill in the air, but the last thing a local ecologist was expecting to see making its way up the River Thames was a beluga whale – an animal whose usual home is the Arctic Circle.

The marine mammal was first spotted on the morning of Tuesday 25th September 2018. After word of the sighting got out a procession of hopeful nature watchers began to make its way to Gravesend, Kent hoping to catch a glimpse of the marine mammal.

beluga whale surfacing
Beluga whales are famous for their striking pure white skin. The animal in the picture above is a captive animal.

Beluga whales are usually found in the cold Arctic and Subarctic waters of the far north. These small whales are known for their distinctive pure white skin and for the bump on their foreheads which houses the ‘melon’ – an organ used for echolocation.

Beluga whales are rated ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – the global authority on the conservation status of species. The principal threats to the species are hunting – both of the whale itself and of the fish that it eats – and pollution.

The Thames beluga – nicknamed ‘Benny’ by the British press – appears to be a subadult (a juvenile that has not quite reached adulthood). It is exhibiting foraging behaviour and appears to be in good health.

However, there are fears that the animal, which is more than 2,000 miles away from its Arctic home, has become disorientated and will be unable to find its way back.

Members of conservation groups such as Whale and Dolphin Conservation were on standby in case the beluga whale became stranded.

Gravesend, the area in which the Thames beluga was spotted, is highlighted on the map below. Zoom out to see just how far from home the whale is.

The beluga is also in real danger of being struck by a ship – it finds itself perilously close to Tilbury, the principal port of London. A constant stream of ocean-going container ships uses the river at this point.

Adult beluga whales can reach lengths of 5.5 m (18 ft.) and weights of almost 1.5 tons. However, even if the Thames beluga were full grown it would come off worse in a collision with a container ship over a quarter of a kilometre in length.

On the 27th September the Port of London Authority – in response to the whale’s presence – issued a notice preventing non-essential craft from using the river near Gravesend. The notice also requires other vessels to keep a close lookout, to keep speed at a minimum, and to stay at least 100m away from the whale.

beluga whale swimming underwater
Captive beluga whale. Photo by (Greg5030) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Benny isn’t the first large cetacean to have been spotted in the Thames – in 2006 a bottlenose whale made its way up the river as far as London. Sadly, the incident ended in tragedy as the whale became stranded in the shallows and was unable to escape.

For a beluga whale to be seen this far south, however, is unprecedented.

The last time a beluga was sighted off the British coast was in 2015, when individuals were seen from both Northumberland in northern England and Northern Ireland. Otherwise, British sightings are usually limited to the North Sea north of Scotland.

At Active Wild we are keeping our fingers crossed that Benny the Thames Beluga whale manages to find his way back to the Arctic. Although his visit has provoked widespread interest in the species, we’d much rather he was back where he belongs.

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