LIFE in abundance

Recent reports and sightings have shown that life in our famous Thames is thriving by Joe Campbell

when strolling across London Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge or any other, it can be easy to look down at the water below and feel that it looks unpleasant and uninviting. In fact, when David Walliams undertook the incredible feat of swimming its length, a lot was said about the effect of the water on his health. We humans are land-dwellers, and whilst the cold and choppy waters are not meant to be inhabited by us, there are some creatures who are starting to find life in the Thames quite desirable.

A report published by the Zoological Society of London stated that in the past ten years an amazing 1,317 people had sent in sightings of marine mammals in the Thames Estuary. The most commonly reported marine mammal that was spotted was the Harbour Seal, and some were spotted as far up the Thames as Chiswick and Hampton Court Palace.

The Thames, being the main waterway in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world was once little more than an open sewer, and in 1957 it was declared ‘biologically extinct’, meaning the oxygen levels in the water were so low that it could not support any life. It’s great news then that the river has undergone a clean-up and is now able to support such biodiversity.

As well as seals, other mammals that have been spotted include porpoises, dolphins and even whales. In 2013, a pod of porpoises was spotted near Tower Bridge and a small pod of dolphins were also spotted in Bermondsey. What brings these amazing creatures to our banks? In short, when the cleanliness of the water improves, the variety and number of fish increase, in turn attracting predators that feed on them.

Although sightings of such animals are not an everyday occurrence, seeing them and reporting them is invaluable. In her ZSL report, Joanna Barker says: “From tourists spotting seals as they walk along the Southbank, to city workers seeing porpoises from their high-rise offices – we rely on public sightings to understand how marine mammals use the Thames. The Thames Estuary is a busy urban waterway, but it also is a biodiverse ecosystem that needs to be protected. By gathering information on the distribution of marine mammals, we can work with other organisations to design conservation measures to ensure their populations are protected.”

If you are about to rush out through the door with binoculars, you will want to know where is best to head. Barker goes on to say: “I’m often asked where the best place to spot a marine mammal in central London is. Our analysis points to one area where you’d probably not expect – London’s financial heartland, Canary Wharf. This area had the greatest density of sightings in the whole estuary – perhaps due to the large number of people working in glass-fronted offices facing the Thames or due to the proximity to Billingsgate fish market.”

And if you do see something special, don’t forget to log it on ZSL’s map! Just visit

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