London Whale Tale Ended Abruptly

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2006

After thrilling the world and drawing huge crowds in London, a rare whale died abruptly aboard a rescue barge Saturday night. Clues to her stranding and death may be uncovered by an autopsy now underway.

The young northern bottlenose whale died aboard a rescue barge that was taking her back to sea. The mammal had spent two days in central London after a 40-mile (64-kilomter) journey upriver from the North Sea.

The whale was the first seen in the Thames since records began in 1913.

In a last-ditch rescue attempt, a team placed the mammal atop specially designed inflatable pontoons and lifted her from the Thames by crane. Thousands of cheering onlookers lined the river.

But as the rescue barge neared the mouth of the Thames, the animal's condition suddenly worsened.

After the calf began convulsing, the onboard team decided to euthanize the whale to spare her a painful end. But the creature died before the team could do so.

"From the outset we always knew we were up against it, and the odds were slim that we could rescue this whale," said veterinary surgeon and whale expert Paul Jepson, who is performing an autopsy on the mammal.

"We were very worried about its condition, as its respiratory rate was too high. Unfortunately it did deteriorate very quickly," said Jepson, who works with the Zoological Society of London.

Emotional Roller Coaster

"The last two days have been a helter-skelter of emotions," said Alan Knight of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a volunteer group that specializes in refloating stranded whales. "It is sad that the whale died, but we really did give it the best chance possible."

The group first received news of the whale from a commuter who spotted the animal while his train was crossing the river early Friday morning.

The approximately 19-foot-long (5.8-meter-long), four-ton animal quickly became London's star attraction, as crowds, including reporters from around the world, flocked to the banks of the Thames.

Continued on Next Page >>


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