A Whale in the Thames


It was a bright, raw day when I drove to see the beluga whale at Gravesend. I’d only seen two in my life, both of which were trapped in a tank in Valencia Oceanogràfic. Far too big and wild to be caught in captivity under the Spanish sun, they’ve haunted me ever since, and inspired a haiku in my latest poetry collection Songs for Samhain.

But this beluga was wild and free, a blubbery, white churro with little teeth and a round head called a melon, used to echolocate. It had somehow drifted through the ice floes of its Arctic home, all the way down to the River Thames, where it had been swimming for a few days in the estuary at Gravesend. Ecologists were unsure how it had become so disorientated, but suggested it might have followed a shoal of fish down the east coast of Britain and into the river mouth. At Gravesend it seemed to have settled, enjoying the rich supplies of fresh mackerel and bass so much that observers have confirmed it’s healthy and displaying normal foraging behaviour - albeit a couple of thousand miles off course.

I arrived mid-morning and asked the local ferrymen where the whale had last been sighted. They pointed me down the bank towards a pub called the Ship and Lobster, but before I had walked a few minutes I looked out and saw a white mound in the water, near the far side of the estuary. I stopped and stared - had it been a swan? The mound had disappeared. I continued walking until I found a familiar herd of men and women with binoculars and scopes, staring out across the water. We waited together, watching the autumn sun sparkle through the tide, and suddenly - there!

The mound had re-emerged, and this time I was ready with my camera lens. I zoomed in and watched it emerge two, three, four times, catching a breath before sinking back into the river. From our viewpoint the passing boats didn’t seem to cause it much bother, although I couldn’t imagine how chaotic it must have been with all the noises and vibrations of the Thames - especially compared to the cold, quiet waters of the Arctic. I watched the whale float back and forth through the river, oblivious to the crowd of naturalists on the bank, or the 24-hour turbulence of central London just a few miles upstream.

At last I waved farewell to the beluga whale, desperately hoping it might return to the open sea and swim back north. Before leaving I visited the statue of Pocahontas in the grounds of St George’s Church. I knew she had died there after listening to the In Our Time podcast on her life and death, but sadly her exact burial spot is unknown.

Pocahontas grew up in the first half of the 17th century, a daughter of the Chief Powhatan who ruled over a number of Algonquian communities in Virginia. When Spanish, French and English colonisers started arriving in search of the North-West passage to Asia, one of the explorers known as John Smith was captured and sentenced to death, but (in true Disney style!) the legend goes that Pocahontas ran from Powhatan’s side and placed her head over John Smith’s, who was then spared and offered friendship by the Chief.

In later years, Pocahontas married another colonist John Rolfe, bore a son, converted to Christianity and was baptised as Rebecca, before sailing back to England with Rolfe in June 1616. She was welcomed by English society as the first of her nation to embrace Christianity, but she soon became ill and left for ‘better air’ in Brentford. The following March, she boarded a ship headed back to Virginia with her husband, but did not make it past Gravesend where they had stopped to take on fresh food and water before the voyage. It was here that Pocahontas was supposedly brought ashore, either dead or dying, and was later buried in St George’s Church. The Burial Register holds one inaccurate entry:

‘March 21 - Rebecca Wrolfe, wyffe of Thomas Rolfe gent. A Virginian lady borne, was buried in ye chancell.’