After a three day struggle a sperm whale that was spotted in the Thames sadly stranded and died.
On the 30th January 2020, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) received a call that there was a whale in trouble around 100m off the coast of Whitstable, on the North Kent Coast. By lunch time the whale, which at first was thought to be a minke or possibly a humpback, had moved away in the direction of the Isles of Sheppey and The Swale, a tidal channel of the Thames estuary. It then became clear, from photos that had been taken by members of the general public, that this was in fact more likely to be a sperm whale, a species that inhabits deep water.
As the day went on the whale was continually monitored by the Inshore Fisheries patrol boat and BDMLR volunteers who followed the progress of the whale from the land nearby as well as monitoring its movement and behaviour. By 3pm it was found in shallow water and with the tide dropping, hope for the animal finding its way back out to deep water were fading.
On the 31st January a close assessment of the sperm whale was carried out. Although the whale was still swimming it did appear to be distressed as its movements were not smooth and it appeared to be confused. There was also signs of a small injury to the head of the animal. The assessment also concluded that the whale had been stranded at times when the tide had been at its lowest point of the day, but it was still being supported by the water, and as far as they could tell had not been fully stranded.
On Saturday 1st February BDMLR received news that the marine police had found the whale at Elmley marshes, but sadly it had fully stranded and died. An examination of the body is now due to be carried out by the Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme.
Sperm whales are widely distributed around the world, particularly in deep offshore waters or canyons along the continental shelf edge. Females and calves tend to stay in warmer tropical and subtropical waters where as males tend to go further into temperate and polar waters where there is less competition for food. Around the UK sperm whales can be seen on the west coast in deep waters and around Scotland. They can also be seen in deep canyons in the Bay of Biscay, more regularly through late during and summer. Their primary prey consists of deep – water fish and the giant colossal and squid, which are found in deep sea trenches and canyons. The sperm whale is one of the deepest diving mammals diving to over 2,000m and holding their breath for up to 2 hours each time! The waters in and around the Thames are simply too shallow for these animals to live in.
Over the past couple of years there have been a number of whale sightings in the Thames. Benny the beluga became very well known in September 2019 when he appeared near Gravesend and it is believed made its way back out of the Estuary. But sadly other cetaceans are not so lucky, like the humpback whale spotted in the Thames in October 2019 who sadly became a victim of Ship Strike.