No major concerns for Benny the beluga

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 26 September 2018

Conservationists are waiting to see if a “very lost” beluga whale, nicknamed Benny, will head out to sea after being spotted swimming strongly and feeding normally.

© Daniil Ermolchuk / Shutterstock

The beluga is an arctic species, that feeds on squid, fish, crustaceans and bivalves - actually pretty much everything

The rare marine mammal was first seen near Gravesend, Kent, on Tuesday afternoon and appeared to be “swimming strongly” and feeding in the estuary.

This morning (Wednesday), a reporter for Sky News spotted the whale again and tweeted that it had “just surfaced on the Gravesend side of the estuary”.

That would indicate that it’s moved a few miles further west since yesterday.

However, rescue teams were on standby in case the animal, gets into danger and ‘live strands’ on local sandbanks.

The last reported sighting of beluga in UK waters was in 2015, when two were spotted off the Northumberland coast and one in Northern Ireland.

Among the theories of how the beluga whale ended up in the Thames is that it followed a shoal of fish into the waterway - herring and cod are among the usual sources of food for the species. .

MCS, Marine Protected Area Principe Specialist, Dr Jean- Luc Solandt on the ‘lost’ beluga:

What is it:

The beluga is an arctic species, that feeds on squid, fish, crustaceans and bivalves - actually pretty much everything. It’s generally a social species, can grow up to 20ft in length and is generally found in the very cold waters around Greenland, Svalbard or the Barents Sea. They were called “canaries of the sea” by early whalers due to the squeaks and squawks they make.

Why is it here?

Many Arctic dolphin and whale species that swim off Iceland, Greenland and around the north of Norway will not swim into the Southern North Sea, as it’s so shallow (average depth is about 40m between us and Europe), because they have echo-location, they tend to turn around, identifying the shallow seabed to the east of mainland Scotland.

But from time to time, individuals such as sperm whales, pilot whales, and in this case the Beluga get ‘lost’. They may be diseased, damaged or deaf (from disease). This would lead to problems of echo-location, knowing how deep they are, and where land-masses are.

Will it survive?

It has a better chance than the sperm whales (that got stranded in North Norfolk a couple of years ago) or the lone pilot whale (Thames stranding in 2006) because those animals tend to feed on deep water squid and fish and aren’t adapted to shallow waters. Belugas can and do feed on seabed fish and invertebrates in shallow waters – such as the Thames estuary - so it may do better. Warm water is however an issue - I would suggest it would be used to waters under 7 degrees C. The Thames is likely to be nearer to 12 to 15 at this time of year.

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue group said it was sending its area coordinator down to the river to monitor the situation.

The network of volunteer “marine mammal medics” has whale rescue pontoons at the ready that can be used to re-float stranded animals in an effort to move them to safety.

A spokeswoman for the organisation said the beluga’s visit to the Thames was a “very rare occurrence” and urged people not to go out in boats to get a close look at the whale, but to watch it from the shore.

Actions you can take