British Divers Marine Rescue Presentation (Diverse ’06)

Notes from the recent Diverse ’06 conference st Surrey University organised by the BSAC South-East Region.

The first presentation of a packed day came from Mark Stephens from British Divers Marine Rescue (BDMR) with regards to the recent “London Whale” incident.


He gave an enlightening account of the events that surrounded the “London Whale” rescue attempt for which he was responsible. Considering the seemingly tragic subject matter it is remarkable that his account was punctuated with a healthy dose of humour.

The BDMR are a registered charity and are the primary marine animal rescue service for British coastal waters. They have four Tornado RIBS, and train over 300 medics a year to offer a 24hr, 365 day service.

They have been heavily involved with treating seals suffering with the recent outbreak of distemper and have a hospital facility in Scotland where malnourished and sickly pups have been taken over the past couple of years.

35% of all cases end happily with animals re-floated to continue their lives at sea.

During the presentation, Mark expressed frustration that the recent London whale incident provoked the extraordinary level of media interest that it did. His frustration stemmed from the fact that the BDMR rescue animals of this sort all the time – In fact around one hundred dolphins and porpoises were rescued in the last year alone. In his opinion the London whale was just that – one whale!

His other frustration with the publicity overload was that he expected that along with the extensive media interest might come a raft of sponsorship from the general public and press – alas, this didn’t seem to materialise. And calls for press interviews actually hampered the rescue attempt, as he was unable to use his mobile phone for long periods.

It is estimated that over twenty million people watched the drama unfold on television, and Mark fantasised about getting just one penny for each viewer.

Some money was raised however: The Mail on Sunday was highlighted as being the only British newspaper to pay for photos (」5,000), and a watering can* used to keep the whale wet during the rescue was recently sold on Ebay for 」2,050

In general the presentation mainly took the form of Marks impressions and actions during the time of the rescue punctuated with occasionally funny examples of mis-reporting by the news agencies.

The whale was first sighted heading upstream near the Thames flood barrier. It is speculated that animals of this sort have some kind of “go west” magnetism during their migration to bring them into the Atlantic. On some occasions this results in their mistakenly heading into the Thames estuary, and consequently into the river itself.

There comes a point as one heads upstream where a river starts to change from salt water to fresh water, and this represents the furthest upstream that can be tolerated by a whale. If the animal turns back, it can then be faced with heavy boat traffic, and so it doomed to go back and forth becoming increasingly distressed as time passes. This point on the Thames is around Battersea and Wandsworth Bridge – and it was at here that the rescue attempt was begun.

The first stage of the rescue involved beaching the whale – as nothing can be done with the animal swimming free. You will recall those early stages of the rescue, with the whale surrounded by a group of people as it was manoeuvred into position near some inflatable pontoons. This group of people comprised of vets, police and medics , and for reasons that no-one could later fathom, a lone reporter from The Daily Mirror.

The whale was manoeuvred onto matting, surrounded by the pontoons and taken to be lifted by crane onto a barge. This lift had never been attempted before, and was a critical and stressful experience, both for the whale and those involved in planning and executing the hoist.

Mark commented that in all reality the odds were stacked against the unfortunate whale from the very beginning. The stress it had, and was continuing to suffer, coupled with the great distance that had to be travelled to return her to safer waters did not bode well for survival. The nearest possible point where she could be set free that gave her viable chance of finding its way west again was the “Shivering Sands” near Margate.

At around the Thames barrier area the whales breathing started to fail. She fell into convulsions some hours later, and as she died the lights were turned off on the boat. Denying the press their footage of the distressed rescuers.

The BBC produced a segment for the news to mark the dramatic period of this rescue. They put together a montage of mobile phone camera photographs collected from the many thousands of people that lined the banks and bridges of the Thames. The images were set to misic by Coldplay and Mark finished-off his presentation by playing this emotional sequence.

He finished-up saying with a wry smile: “It gets you right in the wallet, doesn’t it”.

*BDMR branded watering cans will soon be on sale in B&Q – A proportion of the sale goes to the charity. Buy one.