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GRAVESEND (Britain): A beluga whale swims in the River Thames on Wednesday.—Reuters
GRAVESEND (Britain): A beluga whale swims in the River Thames on Wednesday.—Reuters

A BELUGA whale spotted in the River Thames estuary outside London — far from its natural Arctic habitat — is “swimming strongly and feeding normally”, Britain’s main animal protection charity said on Wednesday. “At the moment, there are no major concerns for the welfare of the animal,” the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said in a statement, adding that the whale appeared “able to move fast in the water and dive”. “Following our request to the London Coastguard, we are pleased that local boats have moved away. Whales have acute hearing and become stressed very easily,” the group said.

The extremely rare sighting triggered wonder and excitement on Tuesday and the whale was spotted again in the same area on Wednesday. Rob Lott, a marine mammal scientist at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation wildlife charity, said the cetacean was being monitored. “The longer it stays in the Thames estuary then it will become more of a concern,” he told BBC radio. “Hopefully instinct will soon kick in and the beluga will leave the estuary and go out into the North Sea and then head north where it should be,” the scientist explained.

The sight of a beluga whale so far south —1,600 kilometres from even Iceland — is exceptional. “Beluga whales are a species of the icy Arctic — finding one in the tepid Thames is an astonishingly rare event,” said Rod Downie, polar chief adviser at the World Wide Fund for Nature. Lucy Babey, head of science and conservation at the marine conservation charity Orca, said it was the most southerly recording of a beluga in Britain, according to the BBC.

The previous reported sightings of beluga whales in UK waters were in 2015, when two were spotted off the northeast coast of England and one in Northern Ireland. Rescue teams are on standby in case the whale gets into trouble. Belugas typically live for 40 to 60 years. Highly sociable, they typically form pods and are often seen in river estuaries in the summer.

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2018