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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 January 2006, 19:05 GMT
Londoners flock to doomed rescue
By Stephen Dowling
BBC News at Battersea Bridge

Rescuers with stranded whale on floats
Rescuers' efforts were cheered by those lucky enough to see

Londoners were captivated by the story of the whale that became stranded in the River Thames. We were there as thousands watched the final few hours of the doomed rescue attempt.

The crowd is three deep on the south bank of the Thames just west of Battersea Bridge - and growing.

Cycles lie in a heap next to statues and trees. Confused dogs and toddlers whine noisily. Arms are raised in an attempt to give mobile phones and digital cameras a clear view over bobbing heads.

The early afternoon whale rescue going on in the low-tide mudflats of the Thames is merely yards away from the crowd, but all except those against the railings are struggling to get a view.

All that most can see is a gaggle of police boats lying just offshore, waiting expectantly.

An 18ft-long (5m) northern bottle-nosed whale is a difficult thing to miss, but the thousands of people craning their necks and seeing considerably less than they would probably see in the comfort of their front rooms.

Bridge closed

Not only are helicopters hovering overhead, but several enterprising TV crews have rented space on riverfront patios in flats overlooking rescue scenes to beam the Thames whale rescue to the world.

Battersea Bridge has been closed to traffic - the sheer number of people crowding on the pavements has become a hazard.

One young woman on the embankment walks off, frustrated. "I'm going home - I'll watch it on the telly."

Woman watching rescue attempt
"Put on News 24 and tell me what's happening"

Others complain loudly to friends over their mobile phones that the best vantage points have been requisitioned by police for the press.

The whale seems to have had a tough time since becoming the star of the rolling news channels Friday afternoon. It's thought to have bumped into one of the bridge pillars overnight, as well as one of the moored boats.

One man, Michael Manners, has been watching the whale since before lunch.

"It had come close to the shore and beached itself. Then the people surrounded it and started stroking it and comforting it. Then they started putting those floats underneath it."

The noise from the excitable crowd thronging the banks causes police to issue a request to keep quiet - apparently vets helping care for the animal think all the unfamiliar noise is causing it stress.

Why have so many come here to watch? Getting a vantage point is as difficult as getting tickets for the fifth day of an Ashes decider or a Tim Henman final at Wimbledon (which is as unlikely as the thought of a whale in the Thames was a week ago).

But still, Londoners want to come and see a glimpse of this incongruous sight; a deep sea whale lying on an inflatable support within sight of the Battersea Power Station and the Chelsea Embankment's grand terraces.

There are cheers from the crowd as the whale in its cradle is dragged out into deeper water and towed towards a waiting barge on the western side of Albert Bridge.

Whale being lifted onto Crossness
The whale died despite elaborate rescue attempts

It is here the most dramatic part of the rescue takes place. The inflatables carrying the harness pull up alongside the salvage barge Crossness. Rescuers jump into the water, and the whale is hidden by a hive of activity.

Minutes later, the barge's crane lifts the whale into the air, its tail flukes moving up and down. The thousands of people gathered on the Albert Bridge and both banks of the Thames cheer and clap.

The barge heads off further down the river, where the vets are due to give the whale a fuller check-up in a quieter stretch of the Thames.

But the stress of its wrong turn into the Thames has taken too much out of it and death follows soon after.

As the barge starts to chug its way towards the Thames estuary, the crowds start to disperse.




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