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Review: The Thames Whale | icon 046 | April 2007

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words Will Wiles

The arrival of a Northern Bottlenose Whale in the Thames in January 2006 was the result of two wrong turns. Straying from its customary feeding grounds off the coast of Nova Scotia, the whale found itself in the North Sea. Longing for the Atlantic, it turned west, but entered the Thames Estuary instead of the English Channel. Bottlenose met bottleneck.

Trapped and doomed, the whale became a popular sensation. Londoners abandoned their desks and cars to flock to the riverbank. The capital’s waterfront briefly exulted in a fervour of shared experience. But the whale they gathered to marvel at was dying. Bottlenoses take in liquids from the food they eat, and this one had not eaten for a long time. Dehydrating rapidly, its vital organs were failing. Every instinct told it to head west, compounding its desperate situation. The noise of the city, boats and helicopters was drowning out its sonar navigation systems.

Whatever panic, shock and exhaustion the whale felt in these last hours were in direct contrast to the heady elation and carnival spirit that filled the gawping crowds. Under their anthropomorphising gaze, death throes became playfulness. Even the experts succumbed to finding this strange death a joyous affair. “It was a fabulous experience for everyone,” enthused Mark Stevens, director of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, who led the effort to pull the whale out of the Thames and return it to the ocean. “I remember saying if we could bottle this feeling there would be an end to wars.” Mawkishness trumps hawkishness.

The whale became a sort of cetacean Princess Diana, gripping the imagination of the pathologically sentimental British public for a cathartic moment of communal empathy. After Diana’s death (under a bridge, pursued by photographers, not unlike the whale) the route of her funeral procession had to be extended in order to make room for the expected mourners when her remains were paraded like the relics of a medieval saint. Similarly, the whale’s remains have now been put on display to satiate the fascination of the public.

Traditionally the carcases of whales that die in British waters are the property of the Crown. Foregoing her right to first dibs on this windfall of whalebone and lamp oil, the Queen has transferred the body to the Natural History Museum. Before it returned to the museum’s zoological ossuary in south London, the whale’s skeleton could be seen in the Guardian’s Newsroom exhibition space on the Farringdon Road. Money to preserve the skeleton was raised by readers of the Sun newspaper – the media seems to have assumed moral ownership of the body, something it could not quite achieve in the case of Diana.

Up close, the whale’s skeleton looks curiously unreal. Even months after it was stripped of all flesh, the bones are still oozing oil, giving them a waxy yellow sheen. This oil stinks, a smell described as being similar to putrescent sweat, so the skeleton is kept in a glass case – built, aptly, by the company that manufactures vitrines for Damien Hirst’s sharks and cows. There’s a distinct feel of the Victorian freakshow to the exhibition – the whaleboned and stovepiped Ladies and Gentlemen of Victoria’s London liked little more than to gawp at the reconstructed skeletons of whales, mammoths and dinosaurs, promoted in sensational fashion as “behemoths” and “leviathans”. Like so much of 19th-century society, there was a hypocritical edge to the Victorians’ wonder at the natural world – they were busily setting in motion its wholesale plunder in the name of progress.

There’s a self-conscious echo of this around the Thames whale as well. It feels somewhat rude to stare. The conservation aspect of the whale’s life and death are heavily accented throughout the exhibition, a figleaf of science. For a 21st-century audience, the whale cannot simply be allowed to be a whale, a monster that blundered into our midst and then had the poor taste to die a futile death. Like the death of a privileged young woman in a Parisian tunnel, it had to be analysed, to be given meaning, a sense that something was accomplished. And so we can’t let these reeking bones exist as a simple curiosity. They have to have “brought people together”, to have “sparked interest in the environment”, to have “given people a sense of purpose”. It was the people’s porpoise.

The Thames whale was at the Guardian’s Newsroom, London, 22-27 January www.guardian.co.uk

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