It’s such a special and, for most of us, rare experience to see a whale and we consider ourselves very lucky when we do. So it is not surprising that hundreds of people flocked to see the young minke whale who was spotted in the Thames in London at the weekend. Such is the wonder and awe that whales and dolphins inspire. But it was bittersweet to me, as I heard that this whale was very young, thin and far up the river, so it would inevitably mean a sad end.
Although swimming freely when she was first spotted, it wasn’t long before the young whale stranded, in Richmond Lock. She was probably still dependent on her mum, and she was certainly considered to be in poor body condition when assessed by medics from BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue). It was immediately clear that the best option for the whale was to end her suffering as quickly and humanely as possible. This happened on Monday afternoon, by veterinary experts at the Zoological Society of London.
Minke whales live around the UK
Minke whales live around the UK coastline, in the central and northern North Sea and all around the north coast and down the UK west coast. Most migrate into our waters in the spring to feed and leave again in the autumn. Some stay all year round, others return year after year to the same feeding grounds, and our friends at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit in Scotland both have a minke whale identification catalogue of photographs of known individuals.
We don’t know much about minke whale social behaviour, but a recent acoustic study recorded vocalisations in the Moray Firth (north-east Scotland) and wider North Sea. Minke whales vocalise more at night, and this may be to help them find prey (predominantly sandeels) or to for males to advertise themselves.
Why do whales get lost?
We don’t know why whales end up in unlikely places, such as waterways like the Thames, which is most definitely not part of their natural home range. Could something have happened to this young whale’s mother and perhaps they became separated? Maybe there was some underlying health condition.
Sometimes, individuals appear healthy when they strand. They may have made a simple navigational error, perhaps chasing a fish, for example. In these cases, BDMLR often with the support of others, such as RSPCA, the Coastguard and from time to time, WDC, assist to assess their health and get the individual back out to sea.
On occasions when a decision to euthanise is made, in cases like with this young minke whale, the decision is taken by someone with appropriate expertise, either a veterinary surgeon or an expert in consultation with a vet.
I have stood at the side of a number of whales and dolphins who have had to be euthanised. It is a sad and challenging decision that has to be made by the person in charge, and one which is taken with the interests and welfare of the individual whale or dolphin above everything else. It’s upsetting and difficult to witness, and never gets any easier.
On a more positive note, the UK has one of the best strandings networks in the world, so there is a good chance we will learn more about what happened to this little whale in time, once all the results of the post-mortem have become available. Strandings information is really important, because it provides us with evidence that WDC can use to push governments for change where human activities, perhaps those creating underwater noise, ship strikes or bycatch, for example, might be the cause.
On behalf of all of us at WDC, I’d like to give a huge shout out of thanks to our friends at BDMLR and their team of dedicated medics. BDMLR are a voluntary organisation that do a massive and important job caring for live stranded whales and other marine mammals that strand all around our coastline. We are also very grateful to the UK Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme, Port of London Authority, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, RNLI, Thames Fire and Rescue Service, Thames Lifeboat, Thames Police, Zoological Society of London and all involved for their dedication and the roles they played in dealing with this sad incident.