On this day-09.10.01.
I was munching my tea (dinner if you’re posh) while watching the hum-drum news from BBC NW tonight’s regional TV news programme. At the end of the broadcast there was the usual ……. and finally snippet… “A Killer Whale washed up on the River Mersey below Liverpool Airport at Oglet shore on the morning tide”. This was an opportunity not to be missed. I jumped onto my bike and peddled the 5 miles across Runcorn Bridge, along Ditton Road via Halebank and Hale Village through to the outskirts of Speke, Liverpool and then down Dungeon Lane to the shore at Oglet Bay.
…The area where the whale became stranded was a hot bed for abandoned stolen vehicles which would invariably end up on the muddy edges of the river or in it! It was also a regular black spot for fly tipping (not the most salubrious locations to whip out your expensive optical gear). I can confidently say these words knowing the area well enough and knowing a few rangers who plied their trade here in previous years. Those rangers deserved a medal balancing the needs and different attitudes from the many Mersey Way participants. A fine balancing act between the affluent area of Hale Village and the less affluent district of south Liverpool.
A small gang of kids were gathered loitering without any intent at the bottom of the lane by the shore and because there wasn’t anybody else there I asked them if they had seen any people looking for a whale? ….not really expecting them to give me the answer I wanted. One of them a proper Speke ‘lid’ (scouse for lad) said “No mate, but there’s a f#ck!^g helicopter crashed on the mud over there”. Erm, quite, and following their eagerly pointing fingers I could see a large shape stretched out on the distant mudflats. The helicopter propeller was one of the pectoral fins of a 5.9 m long Killer Whale! I thanked the kids for their help and started to tell them what the whale was and how rare it is to see in the river, never mind the North West of England and the Irish Sea (I could almost hear my own voice slowed to a steady drone from the look on their faces). Their interest lasted a little shorter than my words and they were off on their bikes looking for something else, less boring instead. I set my telescope up and got reasonable views of the carcass and its lone sad figure stretched there on the murky grey brown mud of the River Mersey a few hundred feet away. I wish I had owned a decent camera in those days to capture the moment of this once majestic creature isolated against the backdrop of Stanlow Oil Refinery and Ince marshes across the river. I stayed for a couple of hours taking in the spectacle but during that period I don’t recall seeing anyone else on the shoreline. I saw the Orca carcass again from Runcorn Hill and later from No.4 tank, Frodsham Marsh the following day. I guess it would have been a hazard to smaller boats if it became re-floated on a higher tide and carried out to the Mersey mouth. I did hear it was blown to smithereens by dynamite soon after the autopsy and that it attracted thousands of gulls to feed on the bits that were left.
There isn’t much more I can add to this whale’s tale but the ZSL London Zoo did an autopsy and established it was an old male who probably died soon after the stranding but was already very poorly due to starvation. It had worn canines and one tooth abscess which would have been a very painful ailment, reducing its feeding considerably prior to entering Liverpool Bay.
I remember a story going around at the time this animal had been seen swimming off Wallasey the previous day?
It took me a couple more years before I finally caught up seeing a live specimen which was across one ocean and in another but the memory of that Mersey Orca was a haunting one and perhaps not the best last resting place for such a magnificent beast.
The species is facing an uncertain future particularly in British waters and being at the top of the food chain this naturally brings its own issues, not least as they absorb (through the food chain) PCB’s which accumulate in their body tissue and are considered (particularly in British Columbia) toxic waste whenever they are found dead on the tide line.
An article regarding PCB’s can be found on this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45652149
The link to ZSL’s full story here: https://www.zsl.org/blogs/wild-science/what-killed-the-killer-whale and credit for Orca the images.
Written by WSM.