In 2006 a lost at sea whale swam up the River Thames to meet a tragic end in the once port city of London. This sad story unfolded on pre-twitter socials and in the 24 hour media glare of a country I barely recognise 15 years later. Londoners being the imaginative lot they are named her Willy. We watched as she made her way up that filthy river looking for the open water that was miles behind her. The juvenile bottle nosed whale was clearly sick. Her directional abilities were hindered by the pollution of the city’s dirtiest waterway. As the tide took her further and further along things got worse for her. The Thames River Authority put people in the water to try and deter her back towards the barrier and the estuary. She kept bobbing off the radar in some places and turning up further upstream. Moving ever closer to Battersea Power Station.
Poor Wilhelmina must have got separated from her pod on the other side of our island nation. They’re common sightings around the north coast of Scotland and Northern Island. Down south though? Not good for a youngster. The capital seemed to all be rooting for her. The papers ran stories for the commuters to collect for free in the Metro on their way to work. The talk was at first of sanity doubting sightings, then helicopter news footage confirmed this wasn’t silly season in the January sales. It was like a friendly alien had visited or a masked avenger had been spotted crawling around The Millennium Dome. The narrative built.
Soon we all understood. She was tiring against the tide. Willy was not strong enough to swim free on her own. There was nothing good for her to feed on and only danger around the bend and below the bridges from Tower Hill to Westminster. By Albert Bridge, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue Team and the Port Of London Authority attempted a rescue. On QEII Bridge crowds watched and rooted for the city’s new mascot. ‘Free Willy’ they chanted as the sky darkend at 4pm. They stayed for hours in the dark. She convulsed and battled with the silt, the tide, the Metropolitan Police and her own fatigue.
Wilhelmina the Northern Whale died just after Seven O’Clock on January 21st 2006 on a barge in the River Thames. Out of the water and out of time.
Her mortal remains are on display in the Natural History Museum in the capital. This was the last time I recall my country rooting for an underdog, welcoming an univited stranger and combining efforts and resources to help a lost soul get free. I often wonder should Willy’s rescue mission have been a success if things would have turned out different. Was this a tipping point or just a mild diversion?
Indie polymath Damon Albarn said of this track “This next song started off as a love song, for someone I love. And then a whale came up the Thames… And it turned into a song about a whale.” His album The Good The Bad And The Queen is a beautiful elegy of a record for a London that’s disappearing. Not because of diversity or modernisation, but because of division and selfishness. An album that features members of Blur, The Clash, Fela Kuti and Tony Allen is well worth your time. Willy was worth ours.
It happened again last month. It will happen again still. Like a broken record.