For the 40 whale-watchers on the banks of the Thames in Kent yesterday, it was an utterly thrilling sight.
Armed with binoculars and cameras, and having travelled from far and wide, they suddenly saw the still waters erupt – as the gleaming white, elegantly curved back of a beluga whale broke the surface.
An Arctic whale! In Gravesend! The habitat of this magnificent creature is in far chillier waters close to the North Pole, evading polar bears, battling killer whales and diving to depths of 2,300ft.
And yet here it was, some 2,000 miles away from home, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and feeding on crustaceans in sight of the seaside resorts of Canvey Island and Southend-on-Sea.
A beluga whale breaches in the river Thames close to Gravesend, Kent,
Concerns were growing for a beluga whale spotted in the River Thames estuary
But despite initial fears the ‘very lost’ mammal’s life could be in danger, the RSPCA assured watchers Benny has moved out towards the estuary, ‘which is a good sign’
Nicknamed Benny, although its sex is unknown, the whale that popped up in the river this week is a rare treat for wildlife enthusiasts.
There are 150,000 belugas, but they’re usually found near Greenland, Russia and North America.
Yesterday, Benny had moved several miles upstream from where it was first spotted on Tuesday by ecologist Dave Andrews, on the other side of the river, by Coalhouse Fort in Essex.
We watched in breathless silence as the whale breached one to three times every four minutes. We saw its ‘spiracle’, or breathing hole, on the back of its huge, bulbous ‘melonhead’ and the ridge along its 5ft back.
Benny spent the morning feeding around three barges – belugas are partial to cod, octopus, squid and herring – while moving slowly down towards the estuary, towards freedom and the Arctic Circle.
‘The whale can feel the cold, saline water of the incoming tide which it prefers to the warm, fresh water of the Thames,’ said Clare Dew, of the RSPCA.
The whale doesn’t know where it is in relation to the North Pole, but with luck it will navigate home using temperature as a guide. For the moment, Benny seems safe enough – but must be lonely. Belugas are sociable creatures and travel in pods of ten or more. In summer, they gather in groups of hundreds or even thousands.
A boat from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue – an organisation dedicated to the rescue and well-being of marine animals in distress around the UK – circled the barge close to where the whale keeps surfacing
Benny was thousands of miles from the white species’ natural home in Arctic waters
An RNLI crew watch from their rib as a beluga whale swam in the Thames
They are capable of 11 noises – cackles, squawks, trills and whistles – to ‘talk’ to each other.
Benny is also likely to be stressed. This is one of the busiest shipping channels in the world and on the Essex side lies the port of Tilbury.
Exactly why Benny has strayed so far from home is a mystery, said Miss Dew. ‘It might have been in a small pod that was following a food source, but got thrown off course by Hurricane Florence. Then this whale may have followed a separate food source.’
Whatever the circumstances, the whale-watchers were delighted.
‘I saw it first on Tuesday next to the barges,’ said Adam Brown, 34, a keen fisherman. ‘I knew it was something special.’
Wildlife enthusiasts look at beluga whale swimming in the River Thames near Gravesend in Kent
Solita Herrera-Jorge, who came with Jose Morhino, said: ‘We sat and waited and then we suddenly saw it – and then we kept on seeing it, six or seven times.’
The hospital receptionist added: ‘It’s very white and I could see it puffing. It was so exciting.’
Mr Morhino, a retired boatbuilder who worked on the Thames, recalled seeing the northern bottlenose whale that became stranded near Battersea Bridge for two days in 2006. Sadly, the whale died from convulsions.
‘I’m worried this whale will get tired,’ said Mr Morhino. ‘It’s been there two days and it’s isolated.’
A spokesman for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue said whale rescue pontoons were in place to refloat Benny if it gets stranded in shallow water, while whale-watchers are being encouraged to enjoy the views from the shore and not from boats.
Like those assembled on the banks, I feel privileged to have seen Benny – but like them, I’m praying for its safe return home.