British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (photo: Steve Marsh)
British Divers Marine Rescue


2007-11-01 17:20:29

River Humber Fin Whale Stranding

Received a call at 7.00 am from Simon Drayton to say the whale that had been spotted alive on Monday in the river had come ashore. Reports indicated could be up to 60ft in length. Luckily I was almost out of the door on my way to work anyway, so was able to respond very quickly (and not go to work!).

On scene at the dock I was unable to immediately locate the whale but the tide had come in sufficiently to refloat it (unfortunately dead although this had yet to be confirmed). The coastguard reported it was now floating down the middle of the river in the shipping lane (!). In the meantime Bev Drayton coordinated the rescue, and I was joined by another member of my team Paul Reaney-Sygrove, to support me. Just as well as the media attention had already ballooned, with Radio Humberside and the Yorkshire Post already on scene. I was able to give quick interviews to keep them happy and up to date, and no sooner had a told them that the whale was reportedly dead, than we got a call saying a MOP had put a 999 call in saying they’d seen it splashing about (!).

The whale was now visible and ‘appeared’ to be moving at around 6 or 7 knots, but Paul confirmed that the tide was flowing at that rate, and that there was unfortunately no movement from the whale. It was also belly up – white in colour with deep throat grooves visible. At this point it turned into an identification exercise, rather than a rescue. L I spoke to Humber Rescue about the possibility of them sending a boat out and they said it may be possible early afternoon (I could hardly expect the volunteers to turn out from work for a dead whale!).

The carcass floated past, still in the middle of the river, and I spoke to Sue Rhoades on a number of occasions who said if it stayed in the fast flowing channel it would drift closer to the shore somewhere under the Humber Bridge around Hessle and Ferriby Foreshore, about 15 minutes drive away. We took the decision to move there as there was nothing more we could do at our current location.

Once there I was joined by Assistant Coordinators Joel and Freddie Taylor, and medic Chris Lowes. We were also joined by representatives from BBC Look North, Yorkshire TV, Sky News, The Hull Daily Mail (via phone) and Radio Humberside, and a number of members of the public. I also receive a call from Tony Woodley saying he'd had calls from the media too to HQ! Interest was growing, despite the whale having passed away.

We waited perhaps 45 minutes but couldn't spot the carcass, despite practically everyone looking. I spoke to the police about the possibility of their helicopter giving us a hand and they kindly agreed, although it was currently on a task over Hull, but would attend if possible. Meanwhile one of the crew from Humber Rescue arrived (so sorry, I can’t remember your name!) and agreed to take me out to identify the whale and take a sample (I’d already spoken to Paul Jepson from the Natural History Museum who were very interested). They also agreed to take the film crew from Look North. The whale was then sighted a significant distance away, and the tide was turning so was unlikely to come any further towards us.

Once suited and booted, and having been reminded by Joel and Freddie to take the obvious with me on the boat – like gloves! (woops! - thanks guys!), we headed into the Humber to locate the whale, taking a slight detour on route to a reported overturned yacht (which ironically later turned out to be the carcass!). We received sightings from MOP via the Coastguard of another sighting, but it turned out to be a partially filled black dustbin bag. Well it could've been an Orca!! ;-)

By this time we were joined by the police helicopter, who quickly located the whale at the entrance to Barrow Haven on the south bank of the river. We attended to find the carcass stuck in the mud, but sill partially submerged, with the underside and one pectoral fin showing, a small amount of the lower jaw, but nothing else. It clearly wasn’t 60 feet in length, but around 27 feet. Identification was still difficult, although it was not a Humpback, but some species of Baleen nonetheless. Joel and Fred arrived on the bank to assist with identification, and took some significant photographs (which were later sent to HQ).

After a number of interviews on board and taking of a sample (for which I owe to the boat handling skills of the Humber Rescue crew!) we headed back to shore - for more interviews. After popping home to put the sample in my freezer (next to the kids fish fingers) I still managed to get to work for 2.15. Damn ;-)

HQ later identified the whale as a Fin, although given the lack of visibility of the rest of it, could still have been a Sei or even a Blue!

As with operations of this magnitude the ‘thanks’ list could be endless! But can I offer my sincere thanks to:

Simon and Bev Drayton for their unending help, support and coordination, My assistant coordinators Joel and Fred Taylor and my team of medics, who never fail to be enthusiastic and dedicated, Volunteers from Humber Rescue who provided services above and beyond, including the incredible patience they displayed during all the interviews!! The Coastguard who were as professional as always, Humberside police for the use of their helicopter in locating the whale (hope that didn’t sound like they let me fly it?! ;-) )

Alan Stewart
Regional Coordinator - Humber