Attention turned to the river Thames on Tuesday (25 September), where a beluga whale was spotted almost 2,000 miles south of its typical geographic range: the southernmost UK sighting. 

Marine mammal scientist and MBA member Prof. Chris Parsons said; "It is really strange to see a beluga here. There have been strandings of beluga whales in the UK historically, and occasionally sperm whales have come this far south, but for a beluga whale to come as far south as London is very unusual. It’s the temperature that may be a problem for this Arctic animal."

We spoke to Dr Chiara Giulia Bertulli, sightings officer for The Sea Watch Foundation who told us: "It’s not unusual to see belugas travelling up rivers, but it’s not very common to see them venturing so far south from where they usually live, which is the Arctic. It’s a very long journey, and we don’t know exactly what happened - why the beluga whale is here."

In 2006, a northern bottlenose whale stranded in the Thames, capturing the public's imagination. Sadly, it never made it back to the sea, so people are naturally interested in the fate of this beluga. 

Prof. parsons explained some of the challenges facing a lost cetacean: "In common with many other cetaceans, belugas use echolocation to find their prey so they don’t really need to see – in their native range belugas will go into murky estuaries, such as the St Lawrence estuary in Canada, so the turbid waters of the Thames would not prevent it feeding. However, water quality might well be a problem, what with bacteria and pollutants and so on in the Thames. I know there are organisations like British Divers Marine Life Rescue who are paying a lot of attention and we really do have a lot of experts here so if there is a problem they are monitoring it."

Dr Bertulli went on to say "It has been observed feeding, which is a good sign, but I guess it all depends on whether the animal is actually feeding enough, and there is a bit of a disturbance in the area, the river is an area that has a lot of noise , so that could disturb it as well, or add an extra pressure."

While people are keen for a closer look, Prof. Parsons urges caution: "It is a good idea to just give this animal some space and let the scientists monitor it."

Experts think the beluga is doing well and feeding normally, much to the excitement of cetacean-spotters along the banks of the river. 

And what of the future? No one can be sure but once again the nation is holding its breath. Prof. Parsons: "There is a beluga whale sanctuary being built in Iceland by the Sea Life Trust and Whale and Dolphin Conservation, so if they can keep this animal alive there is a possibility of rescuing it and taking it into this sea pen in its more natural environment - but that would be many months down the line."

To find out more about beluga whales, and for the latest updates on this story visit the Sea Watch Foundation website  

Sep 27, 2018 By MBA Comms