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River Thames: From Fermenting Sewer to Porpoise Playground

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 8, 2013

One of five porpoises spotted in London on Friday (Photo Marine 2 Patrol Boat)

One of five porpoises spotted in London on Friday (Photo Marine 2 Patrol Boat)

The Thames in London has been a dead river since at least the 1850s, when the chemist and physicist Michael Faraday described it as a “fermenting sewer,” from which the “feculence rose up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface.”  But the modern effort to clean it up got started in the 1960s, and like a lot of environmental efforts from that era, it has paid off.

The Thames is not only far more pleasant these days for people who live around it, but this past Friday those people were treated to the spectacle of five harbor porpoises gamboling through the middle of central London. Here’s an account from The Guardian:

A pod of five harbour porpoise has been sighted in the River Thames.

At around 9.30am, the Marine Policing Unit was alerted to the sighting of a dolphin near Tower Bridge. They reported no further sightings until 10.40am, when they confirmed their boat Marine 2 was “following a pod of about five harbour porpoises in the Lambeth area of the river.”

Stephen Mowat, a marine conservationist for ZSL [the Zoological Society of London] said it was uncommon to see so many so far up the Thames.

“With the condition of the Thames improving we are getting more and more sightings of marine mammals such as porpoise and seals,” he said.

Mowat said one of the reasons that the porpoise may be so far up the river was because of the storm surge.“They follow prey fish up the river so with the high tides to get more fish further up the Thames. Because central London is a more heavily populated area more sightings will be reported.”

He said it would not pose a threat to the porpoise that the Thames barrier was closed. “They should be fine, they can find their way up river and go back down again. As soon as they’ve had their fill of fish they will find their way back out.”

Faraday would be pleased.  Here’s a cartoon that appeared after he wrote a letter in July 1855 describing the filth of the Thames then.  Note that the only animals in the river were carcasses:



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