A beluga whale has been sighted off Gravesend in the Thames estuary, more than 1,000 miles from its usual habitat in the Arctic.
The ghostly white whale was videoed and photographed coming up for air on Tuesday lunchtime. Whale experts said the animal appeared lost but seemed to be swimming strongly.
British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which specialises in saving marine animals in distress in UK waters, has sent a specialist vet to the Kent town to monitor the whale’s movements.
Julia Cable, the charity’s national coordinator, said: “It is swimming strongly and appears to be feeding, so there is no indication that it is unwell or acting strangely. We are not particularly concerned about its welfare apart from the fact that it really shouldn’t be there.
“We do have someone going down to keep an eye on it and report it. We are hoping it is not going to get in any trouble.”
Cable pointed out that sightings of beluga whales in British waters were very rare and that she believed the last sighting was three years ago off the Northumberland coast. “They are an Arctic species so they usually swim around Greenland or Svalbard, a lot further north,” she said.
Adult male beluga whales can grow to more than 5.5 metres (18ft) in length and weigh up to 1,900kg (4,190lb).
Cable said it was possible the specimen in the Thames was forced south of its usual habitat by last week’s storms.
Dave Andrews, a consultant ecologist, was one of the first to identify the whale while birdwatching near Coalhouse Fort in East Tilbury, Essex.
— Dave Andrews (@iPterodroma) September 25, 2018
Under a video posted on Twitter just after 11.30am, he wrote: “Can’t believe I’m writing this, no joke – beluga in the Thames off Coalhouse Fort. It’s been feeding around the barges for the last hour and hasn’t moved more than 200 metres in either direction.”
By 3pm live helicopter footage of the scene showed a Port of London Authority (PLA) boat patrolling the estuary off Gravesend. The PLA confirmed there was a whale in the Thames and urged other boats to “keep a safe and respectful distance”.
Marine mammal experts at the Natural History Museum in London initially said that clearer images were needed to definitely identify the whale as a beluga and that it could be another cetacean species with albinism.
But after examining footage, its whale expert, Richard Sabin, said its appearance and behaviour suggested “very strongly” it was a beluga.
Museum whale expert Richard Sabin, says, 'The white body colour, absence of a prominent dorsal fin, bulbous forehead and general swimming motion all suggest very strongly that this is a beluga whale.' https://t.co/u6OLzJwWys
— NaturalHistoryMuseum (@NHM_London) September 25, 2018
Estuaries are one of the belugas’ favoured habitats, but they also live in deep ocean basins and among loose ice, the museum said.
A spokesman for the RSPCA said: “We are working with other agencies to monitor the situation and ready to provide appropriate assistance if requested.”
Danny Groves, from the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: “This is a high Arctic species thousands of miles from where it should be in Greenland, Svalbard or the Barents Sea. They are usually associated close to the ice. He or she is obviously very lost and quite possibly in trouble.”
Groves urged potential onlookers to give the whale space and minimise disturbance.
In 2006, a whale died after it swum up the Thames into central London, despite efforts to rescue the animal.