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A long swim home: Beluga whale swims into River Thames

Can Benny the beluga whale find its way out to sea?

Photo by Yuan Yue (unsplash)
by Anton Kuech

On Tuesday, 25 September, a beluga whale was spotted surfacing in the Thames near Tillbury, in Essex. Since then, the lost whale has been spotted resurfacing multiple times, making its way up and down the river, currently residing at the Gravesend side of the estuary.


Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), also known as “white whales”, normally inhabit the distant Arctic Ocean and are commonly found in Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Greenland. During the summer, many populations migrate to warm-water estuaries in Canada. They can reach sizes of up to 6 metres, weighing up to 1.6 tons and are thought to live for 30 to 50 years.


As with other toothed whale species, beluga whales are very social animals, living in small and large pods and communicating through sound production, such as high-pitched clicks and whistles. Beluga whales hunt for food using echolocation, whereby fish, crustaceans, krill, squid, octopus, and crabs make up their main diet.


A similar historic sighting includes a beluga named Moby Dick that caused a sensation in Germany and the Netherlands in 1966, swimming down the Rhine all the way to Bonn, until it turned around and swam out to the open ocean.


Human activity remains the biggest threat to Benny. The amount of pollution in the River Thames, such as plastic bags and other potentially harmful substances, as well as shipping traffic, pose an issue for the lost whale. Danny Groves, from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, stated, “When a whale or dolphin is hit by a ship or other vessel in the water, they are likely to die or suffer horrific injury."


To protect the whale and prevent such a disastrous collision, the Port of London Authority has imposed a restricted navigation order. Additionally, the whale is closely monitored by multiple organizations.


There is no exact explanation of how Benny got lost, although noise pollution is regarded as the most likely cause. Whales and dolphins face many global threats including whaling, ship collisions, toxic contamination, habitat degradation and the increasing threat of climate change with popular species such as killer whales facing complete wipe out.  


The unfortunate stranding and subsequent failed rescue of the 2006 northern bottlenose whale in the River Thames highlights the difficulty for lost whales and dolphins to find their way out of the river.


The best scenario for Benny is to swim out to sea at high tide. The likelihood of a collision with a vessel increases every day and the high pollution levels together with the narrowness of the river make a prolonged stay extremely dangerous.


The spectacle of encountering a beluga whale in the River Thames has attained global media attention. Observing a beluga whale swim freely so close to us is very exciting and to think that such an amazing creature is put in small tanks for our “amusement” is worth remembering.

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