Quite extraordinary scenes in the Thames Estuary off Gravesend today. Late this morning, Dave Andrews sensationally found a Beluga Whale while conducting survey work by the river just east of the town. There have been a couple of recent records from Britain and Ireland, but both from coastal localities and involving brief sightings. Therefore, to read that this one was lingering and seemingly quite content with its unusual choice of location, it was impossible to ignore driving the 30 miles down the road to try and see it.
I arrived on site around 13:00 and saw the whale almost straight away. As is often the case with cetacean sightings, views were generally frustratingly brief and underwhelming as the whale surfaced, usually a few times in short succession, before it dived again, sometimes for up to 10 minutes. In fact, the 'beak' and tiny black eye of the whale were only glimpsed on a couple of occasions, although seeing its upper half was considerably easier. At first it was actually quite close in, near the Kent side, but latterly moved over towards the Essex side of the river, rendering views distant even through the telescope.
Beluga Whale is an extreme rarity in Britain, with 15 or so previous records. Most of these have involved brief sightings, often in hard-to-reach places (e.g. Shetland). Therefore one lingering at such an accessible location is a real turn up for the books and has the potential to spark a huge twitch. As for the whale's prospects, things may initially seem bleak but Belugas are well known for being estuarine species, routinely feeding in shallow waters. This one appears in good condition, with no signs that it is struggling from injury or illness. It was fascinating to learn that one survived several weeks in the River Rhine, Germany, in May 1966 (more here). So, hopefully this particular individual will be fine.