A Minke whale trapped in a lock on the River Thames broke free and swam off during a rescue mission with the public urged to report any further sightings.
The whale’s life “hangs in the balance” after it freed itself from the yellow inflatable casing that the RNLI and the London Port Authority were using to extract it from Richmond Lock in the early hours of Monday.
A search is taking place to find the whale after it escaped when it was relocated to Isleworth at roughly 1am, a town in the London Borough of Hounslow located a mile away from the Lock.
The freshest exclusives and sharpest analysis, curated for your inbox
The whale, which is three to four metres long, was going to be observed by experts who could nurse it back to full health. The experts say the whale is “nutritionally compromised” and has a damaged pectoral fin.
The Minke whale
Minke whales are the smallest of the great whales, growing to about 10m.
They can usually be found throughout the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Their range extends from the ice edge in the Arctic during the summer to near the equator during winter.
The minke whale continues to be hunted in nations such as Iceland, Norway and Japan.
Julia Cable, national co-ordinator for British Divers Marine Life Rescue, told Sky News: “It’s surprising that no one spotted the whale on its journey to Richmond Lock.
“We do not know how long it has been trapped here but it was spotted at 7.30pm.
“The nutritional condition of the whale is fairly poor. He or she isn’t nicely rounded like a whale should be, so it’s nutritionally compromised.
“There’s also damage to the pectoral fins, from stranding, and the fin is showing signs that perhaps it was stranded somewhere earlier in the day as well,” the expert added.
Hundreds gathered at Richmond Lock and Weir in west London after the Minke became stuck on the Lock’s boat rollers.
Videos showed the three to four metre Minke being hosed down by a man believed to be a Port of London Authority (PLA) staffer, while a vet performed a check-up at the river’s edge, before the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) arrived at the scene to the cheers of onlookers around 9pm.
Fire crews were also at the scene, along with the British Divers Marine Life Rescue service.
Glen Nicolaides from London Fire Brigade told the BBC the whale was being moved to a more “stable” location where it would be assessed to determine the scale of its injuries and whether it could be released.
Earlier, a witness told the PA news agency that “quite the crowd” watched as the attempted rescue took place.
Jake Manketo, 20, from Richmond, said: “Everyone here is just hoping they get it out.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes when we first saw the poor fella, not every day something like this happens in Richmond.”
It is believed the whale was first spotted at midday a few miles up the river near Barnes Bridge.
A spokesman for the PLA, which owns and operates the lock, said: “At around 7pm on Sunday, a small whale, approximately 3-4m long, believed to be a Minke whale, became stranded at Richmond Lock and Weir.
“PLA staff have attempted to assist the whale with water along with British Divers Marine Life Rescue.”
The lock is situated between Teddington and Richmond, comprising of three vertical steel gates suspended from a footbridge.
Additional reporting by Press Association