- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

LONDON — The lost and distressed whale stranded in the River Thames died yesterday as rescue workers ferried it on a rusting salvage barge in an effort to release it in the open sea.

The 20-foot-long northern bottle-nosed whale had been lifted onto a barge by rescuers and was being taken downriver toward the North Sea when it suffered convulsions and died, said the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The whale struggled with the effects of being out of the water as it was ferried toward the Thames Estuary, officials said.

“It was a brave, valiant, but ultimately tragic effort to get the whale to safety,” RSPCA scientific officer Leila Sadler said.

Swaddled in blankets on the barge, the marine mammal — watched by thousands in London as it spent two days swimming up the murky river past some of the capital’s most famous landmarks — had shown signs of increasing stress and stiffening muscles, an indicator it was in serious difficulty.

“The animal suffered a series of convulsions at around 7 p.m. (2 p.m. EST) and died,” Miss Sadler said. “It was already dehydrated, hadn’t been feeding and being out of the water would have, in effect, shriveled the animal’s internal organs.”

A crowd of 3,000 people at Albert Bridge in south London had cheered and applauded as the whale was tethered to a sling and lifted by a crane onto the barge Crossness. Rescue crews were heading toward Margate, on the southern English coast, where they hoped to let the whale back out to sea.

“There was a real chance that the rescue attempt could have succeeded, but these type of mammals are very prone to the effects of stress, and I’m afraid it all became too much,” said Tony Woodley, spokesman for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue group, which led the rescue attempt.

“It was always going to be a race against time to get it to the ocean, especially with the effect being out of the water has on a whale’s body.”

A veterinarian will conduct a necropsy aboard the salvage vessel to determine the cause of death.

“All the crew on the barge are shattered by the death,” Mr. Woodley said.

Experts had warned earlier that the northern bottle-nosed whale, normally found in the cold North Atlantic, might not survive. Witnesses said the mammal’s snout was bloodied, and photos appeared to show damage to one of its eyes and a number of cuts on its torso.

The northern bottle-nosed whale — the first seen in the river since record keeping started in 1913 — swam along the Thames on Friday, passing Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament as hundreds of curious onlookers jammed the shoreline. The animal twice tried to beach itself.

International and local television networks broadcast the drama live, and police were forced to close a nearby bridge as the number of people watching swelled.

The northern bottle-nosed whale can reach nearly 30 feet in length — longer than a traditional red double-decker London bus — and can weigh nearly 8 tons.

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