Rescuers Try to Save Whale in Thames River!

By TARIQ PANJA, Associated Press Writer Sat Jan 21, 9:05 AM ET

LONDON - Veterinarians and rescuers waded into the River Thames on Saturday after a lost and distressed whale tried to beach itself, taking medical tests and attaching an inflatable pontoon to the 17-foot-long animal as Londoners jammed the riverbanks to watch the drama.

The Northern bottlenose whale — the first seen in the river since record keeping started in 1913 — was in the water close to London's Albert Bridge. On Friday it flailed through the murky waters of the Thames past the Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, watched by hundreds of curious onlookers.

The inflatable pontoon was passed underneath the whale and acted as a sort of floating stretcher. The Port of London Authority's Martin Garside, on a craft alongside the whale, said a medical assessment would take place before a decision on how to move the whale was made.

Blood samples from the animal were taken to a nearby London hospital for tests.

"We are looking at the early stages of a rescue operation," he said, adding that the scenarios included towing the whale to sea, putting it on a barge or lifting it with a helicopter.

The story of the whale has gripped Londoners, with many of them flocking to the riverbanks in west London to catch a glimpse of the massive mammal. London police were forced Saturday to clear the shore of onlookers as the whale prepared to beach.

The Northern bottlenose whale is found in the cold North Atlantic and can reach nearly 30 feet in length — longer than a traditional red double-decker London bus — and weigh nearly 8 tons. The whale was about 40 miles from the mouth of the Thames on the North Sea.

The whales are known as curious animals, readily approaching boats and normally traveling in groups, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society's Web site.

"A whale in the shallow water of the River Thames is like a human lost in the heat of the Sahara desert," said Laila Sadler, scientific officer at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

She estimated Friday the whale could survive for only 24-48 hours in a river that has an average depth of 20-26 feet. "It also seems to be in distress. It has made two seemingly deliberate attempts to beach itself," Sadler said.

Witnesses said the mammal's snout was bloodied, and photos appeared to show damage to one of its eyes and a number of cuts to its torso, though Sadler said these are not uncommon.

When sick, old or injured, whales often get disoriented and swim away from their pod, said Mark Simmonds, science director at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Some people reported seeing a second whale in a different section of the river Friday.

Last week, marine officials said they saw two bottlenose whales in northeastern Scotland when the mammals are normally seen in northwestern Scotland. That, coupled with the second sighting Friday, could suggest that something is disrupting the whales, Sadler said.

Scientists have said fluctuating ocean temperatures, predators, lack of food and even sonar from ships can send whales into waters that are dangerous for the mammals.

"It's extremely rare for one to turn up in a river in the United Kingdom. I suspect that the animal may be in ill health," said Tony Martin, a senior scientist with the British Antarctic Survey.

"It's going to be very confused. It's already stranded twice. The poor creature doesn't know where to go."