Great Britain

Whales in Thames and walrus in Wales…climate change is causing animals to stray

 THE minke whale that came to grief in the Thames in London this week is just one of a series of unusual marine animals that have been spotted around British coasts in recent years.

Last week The Sun told how Wally the walrus was delighting crowds in Pembrokeshire, more than 1,000 miles from his usual Arctic Circle habitat.

Now marine experts are pondering why many sea creatures are straying from the safety of their natural territory.

Today adventurer Ben Fogle, who has seen many whales on his travels, examines Britain’s close encounters with unfamiliar creatures.

SOMETHING strange has been happening in British waters. It’s not every day you get a whale in the Thames.

Especially not when, on the other side of the country, you have got tourists in Tenby, South Wales, fascinated by Wally the walrus, who should be living up in the Arctic Circle.

Earlier this year, a popular seal nicknamed Freddie Mercury fell foul of urban terrors when he was killed by a dog while basking by the Thames in London.

And across the country rare whales have found themselves in trouble in recent years. It’s even predicted that as the oceans warm, we will soon find great white sharks on our coastline.

We have grown accustomed to animals out of context, like the flocks of green parakeets that dominate our skies, but these marine visitors are more significant. How did they get here and why?

Opinion is split, but the loss of Arctic ice could certainly be why Wally the walrus strayed nearly 2,000 miles from his native waters.

Some believe he arrived on an iceberg while others have suggested the adolescent got lost while searching for food.

While his appearance in Wales is very rare, he isn’t the first walrus to appear around the British Isles. There have been eight sightings in Ireland since 1979, and they have also been spotted in Scotland. And whales in the Thames are not unheard of either.

In 1949 two narwhals were seen in the river, in 2009 a humpback was found dead in Kent — and who will forget the beluga whale that turned up in 2018 near Gravesend?

The reason for all this has divided scientific opinion. Some experts speculate it is navigational errors by the whales, or perhaps the ones in question are sick.

But others argue that increased human activity, on and under the water, has caused whales to lose their way, with naval exercises and submarines both possible causes.


So much to see in our seas

  1. True’s beaked whale: The body of this rare whale was found at Kearvaig Bay in northern Scotland last June. Scientists think it may have been blown off course in a storm.
  2. Northern bottlenose whales: Last October rescuers ushered a pod of whales out of Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute. One was later found dead in the Clyde, but the others are believed to have made it out to sea.
  3. Minke whale: The Thames minke is not the first to come to grief in a British river. In 2003 a 20ft specimen was found dead in the River Trent near Gainsborough, Lincs.
  4. Wally the Walrus: The 600lb tusker, which has become a star attraction in Tenby, South Wales, should be way up in the frozen Arctic Circle. How Wally made it so far south is unknown.
  5. Blainville’s beaked whale: Usually found in warm or tropical waters, one of these 15ft whales was found dead on Kenneggy Beach in West Penwith, Cornwall in 2014.
  6. Fin whale: Last year one of these 80ft ocean giants was found beached at Nare Point in Cornwall. The world’s second largest mammal is normally found in the Arctic.
  7. Freddie the Seal: Harbour seals are known to frequent British waterways and earlier this year, one named after late Queen singer Freddie Mercury drew crowds to see him in the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge in London. But in March the seal pup had to be put down after an attack by a dog.
  8. The Richmond Minke: While minke whales are not uncommon around the British Isles, they have never been known to swim as far inland as the one in the Thames this week. It is believed to have got separated from its mother and was not mature enough to navigate London’s river alone.
  9. Northern bottlenose whale: The discovery of one of these endangered North Atlantic whales in the Thames in 2006 intrigued scientists, and after rescue attempts failed, they examined its body, which is now a much-visited specimen at London’s Natural History Museum.
  10. Benny the Beluga: In 2018 a beluga whale became a celebrity when he swam up the Thames estuary, far from his natural Arctic home. Luckily, after straying as far as Gravesend in Kent, Benny is believed to have found his way back out to sea.

Danny Groves, from wildlife charity Whale And Dolphin Conservation, said: “Whales live in a world of sound, navigating, communicating and feeding using echolocation.

“Any human interference with this world can have terrible consequences for them and once stranded they can die very quickly unless helped back out to sea.”

He added: “What is certain is that whales play an important role in keeping the ocean healthy and in mitigating the effects of climate change. As they are our allies in that fight, we need to save each and every one of them.”

There are other giants of the sea increasinly appearing in British waters.

Only last week two orcas were spotted off Cornwall and incredibly there have been more than 100 unconfirmed sightings of great white sharks, as well as a confirmed great white caught in the Bay of Biscay off Spain in 1977.

Several years ago I took part in an experiment to see if we could formally identify great white sharks in UK waters. And while we didn’t succeed, it led to one of my most remarkable wildlife experiences when I scuba dived with nearly 200 blue sharks off Devon’s coast.

It seems that marine creatures are turning up everywhere they shouldn’t be, while their own habitats are increasingly under threat.

Melting polar ice, warming seas and increased fishing has meant that many marine mammals have been forced to hunt further and further from their natural habitats.

Perhaps it is just animals lost, or perhaps they are the explorers of the animal kingdom. Or perhaps these strange sightings provide a barometer of the health of our planet.

Whatever the reason is, we owe it to all the minke, the belugas, the great whites and the walruses to protect their ocean habitats.


How to help the habitats

WORRIED about whales? We can all help to protect their habitats by making some simple changes.

The Sun’s Green Team shares tips on how to save the planet, save cash, save the whale . . .

Three-quarters of Americans are deeply concerned about the current state of the environment

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