Two beluga whales are set to make a journey from China to Klettsvík bay, in Iceland’s Westman Islands this month. The archipelago will house the first open sea beluga whale sanctuary in the world, but some are wary about transporting these whales from one form of enclosure to another.
Originally from Russian waters, Little Grey and Little White are 12-year-old female beluga whales, who were taken into captivity at a young age to perform at Shanghai’s Changfeng Ocean World Zoo.
The pair’s retirement from zoological entertainment is being orchestrated by the Sea Life Trust, a British environmental organization dedicated to the protection of marine wildlife. This multi-million pound project is being touted as “one of the biggest developments in captive whale and dolphin care and protection in decades.”
After the whales’ journey was postponed from April 16 due to bad weather, the belugas are finally set to make the 10,000 km, 30-hour journey from China to Iceland, travelling via plane, ferry and a specially outfitted truck before arriving at the sanctuary off the coast of Heimaey. Once there, scientists will evaluate the mental and physical fitness of Little Grey and Little White.
Adaptation is key
The average life-span of a beluga whale is 40-60 years, and there are an estimated 200,000 belugas in the Arctic waters around Greenland, North America and Russia. Belugas are amongst the few whale species that don’t have a dorsal fin on their back, making it easier for them to swim under sea ice.
“We are currently helping to prepare the belugas for relocation,” Tim Wang, Senior Curator at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, said in a statement to the press. The initial preparations and training with Little Grey and Little White started a year ago, and has included teaching the belugas to hold their breath underwater for longer, increasing their diet to help build up extra weight, and acclimatising them with lower temperatures.
Klettsvík Bay was chosen because of its rich marine wildlife, and for its cold coastal waters that resemble the native sub-Arctic habitat of the beluga whales. Getting accustomed to colder waters of a natural sea environment is one of the main priorities for these whales, which are used to the enclosed pools in Shanghai.
Into the wild
A man-made tank is the only environment these whales have known since their capture by Russian poachers.Their comfort around humans is one of the main reasons why they can’t be released into the wild.
“The belugas have individual personalities just like us,” Iker Wang, Head Trainer at Chengfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, said in a statement to the press. “While Little White is quite cautious and quieter, Little Grey is the opposite. She is brave and craves attention.”
In 2002, the famous killer whale Keiko was released into the wild after undergoing a five-year training at Klettsvík bay. A year later, the star of the film ‘Free Willy’ died of pneumonia.
Once in the wild, Keiko gravitated toward human sailors rather than other whales, highlighting one of the many risks of returning long-captive cetaceans to the wild.
Criticism over ethics
Some activist groups in Iceland remain critical of the creation of an indoor pool near the sanctuary bay.
“We are grateful that the Sea Life Trust offers to give better life conditions to those two belugas than the ones they had in their aquarium in China,” Julie Lasserre, marine biologist and vice president of Sea Shepherd Iceland told Grapevine. The organization fears that due to the Westman Islands’ windy weather, the beluga whales might end up spending a large amount of time in indoor pools rather than the open bay. “We are afraid that they are going from a captive life to another captive life with a lot of stress in addition.”
Bringing the whales that have been held in captivity could pose a threat to the biological pollution to the flora and fauna of Klettsvík Bay. That is why team of researchers and staff will closely monitor Little Grey and Little White in quarantine once they arrive.
“This is an animal welfare project,” explains Páll Marvin Jónsson, a marine biologist involved in the project since 2016 and a former town councilman of the Westman Islands. “We’ll only be bringing something back to the nature.”
Páll understands that Iceland, one of only three nations that allows legal whaling, is in a questionable position to host the whale sanctuary. “We humans are contradictory in everything we do. But politics aside, this sanctuary is kind of a statement in what we’re headed to.”
The beluga sanctuary will also run an adjacent puffin rescue center, where puffin chicks will be monitored and researched. There will also be a visitor and education centre, where visitors will be able to go out to the Klettsvík Bay on boat trips to see the Little Grey and Little White. Sea Life Trust assures that these small boat tours will be carefully monitored, and that visitors will not be allowed too close.
Sea Life Trust, whose overarching mission is to protect marine wildlife and their habitats, does not discount the possibility of adding more whales to the Klettsvík bay.
“We see this as an opportunity to work together,” Páll said. “We can do a lot of animal welfare research in the Westman Islands.”
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