Rare Beluga Whale Sighting in the UK

On Tuesday 25th September 2018, various UK media outlets reported that a beluga whale had been seen in the Thames estuary in Kent. Although seeing some species of whale in the UK coastal regions is not as unusual as might be expected, it is very rare to see a beluga. The previous sighting was in 2015 in waters near Northumberland, and happily ended with the whale turning back to deeper sea. 1915 was the last time a beluga was sighted in the Thames.

Whales in UK waters

Especially around the western coasts, and around Scottish coasts, whales are not uncommon visitors. For example, the fin whale migrates to more temperate waters in summer, and has been spotted off the coast Cornwall. Humpback whales, renowned for their acrobatic displays, are more common in Scottish waters, but can sometimes be seen off Cornwall and the Scilly Isles as they travel northwards.

Beluga Whale in the River Thames

Beluga whales are around 20 feet in length and have a distinctive pale colouring with a bulbous forehead. Their habitat is the icy Arctic waters around Greenland and Svalbard, but they migrate south as ice begins to form in these regions. Their migratory path does not come close to the UK coastline, and if one is seen it means it has become separated from its pod and is lost. This could be a result of it becoming disorientated, perhaps by sonar from ships. It may be that it was taken off course by its usual food supply (plankton, crustaceans and molluscs) venturing into unusually warmer waters nearer the UK, a result of the exceptionally hot summer. Illness can cause whales to seek shallower waters, but this does not seem to be an issue for this beluga, as it has been seen to be swimming and feeding normally.

The beluga whale was spotted on Tuesday, swimming and feeding around barges near Gravesend in Kent. This sighting, first reported by ecologist Dave Andrews on Twitter, resulted in a flurry of interest from members of the public, media groups and whale conservation organisations. One observer said that it was ‘a privilege’ to see this wonderful creature.

Dangers to the Beluga

Being in river water is not in itself a problem, as belugas are able to move between salt water and fresh water, sometimes living in large northern rivers of the Arctic. However, the whale might be more at risk of eating plastics that pollute the river, in a more concentrated area than when in the ocean. Observers are hopeful that the beluga may swim back towards the sea, from where it should be able to find its way. If it started to swim upstream, following the river inland towards London, it could become stranded and in danger from shipping in a more confined urban space.

Expert rescue teams have been on call in case the beluga gets into difficulties and needs rescuing. Shipping in the area has been requested to stay clear of the beluga. Meanwhile, whale conservation organisations have asked the public and media to give the lost whale its space, and not to risk traumatising it by approaching it in boats. The hope is that this whale will, given time and space, return to the sea safely.


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