Lost Thames whale ‘Wally’ gives a boost to U.K. antiwhaling campaign

by William Hollingworth

LONDON (Kyodo) Environmentalists are hoping the sad tale of a stranded whale in the River Thames will boost their campaign to stop Japan’s whaling program.

The errant adolescent northern bottlenose whale swam into the shallow waters of the river past Parliament and Big Ben on Friday. It died Saturday night as rescuers attempted to move it into deeper waters of the North Sea.

Dubbed ‘Wally’ by the media, the whale’s fight for survival was followed avidly by TV stations and made headlines worldwide.

Britons, long known for their love of animals, were gripped by the story and people desperately hoped for a happy ending, as in the movie “Free Willy,” where a boy befriends a killer whale and coaxes him to freedom.

Now campaigners are hoping the British public’s newfound interest in whales can be channeled into antiwhaling activities and that Japanese will take notice and pressure their government to halt the hunting of the giant mammals.

Nonprofit organizations opposed to whaling say their Web sites have had many hits in recent days, and Whalewatch — a global coalition of more than 140 such groups — is asking people to sign a petition calling on Britain to ensure that the International Whaling Commission maintains its ban on commercial hunting when it meets in June. Letters have also been sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair following the whale’s death.

Campaigners say that until this weekend’s publicity, many people were unaware Japan was hunting whales.

“It’s important for the public who followed the attempted rescue of the Thames whale at the weekend to know that they can help us to save whales across the world,” said Whalewatch spokeswoman Leah Garces, “through taking action, writing to their members of Parliament, signing the petition at whalewatch.org and by making donations to help fund our ongoing work.”

Britain has long been at the forefront of the ban on commercial whaling and last week sent a letter of protest to the Japanese government over its whaling program in the Antarctic. Opponents claim hunting is cruel and many whales are endangered species.

However, the issue is generally treated as peripheral in Britain and does not attract much media attention.

Environmentalists believe this may now change, with this weekend’s media full of stories on whales.

“There has been a massive public reaction and a lot of our supporters have been in contact asking what they can do,” Clare Sterling, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said.

“I think that some people were unaware that whales are still being killed. Japan is killing around 1,000 in the Southern Ocean every year.

“I hope that what happened (in the Thames) will have a beneficial effect on our campaign and encourage people to appreciate whales. I hope that people in Japan will take notice of the reaction in London.”

Emma Butler, press officer for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said it was too early to judge whether the events in the Thames would boost the campaign.

However, she hopes people will also become more aware of the other threats that whales face, including pollution and the disorientating effect of sonar devices.

Garces said the fact that the whale first beached close to the British Parliament was symbolic.

“It was almost as if he was an ambassador or martyr for his species, reminding the government and indeed the world that they are still here, inhabiting a parallel world beneath the sea, and in need of our help and our respect to survive,” she said.

Experts do not know why the animal, measuring about 6 meters long, became stranded in the Thames and got so far up into central London. It was the first time a whale has been spotted in the river since 1913.