Stepping through the door of the sanctuary, we expected to be welcomed with some sort of ceremonial orchestra. Instead, we were greeted by two melon-headed, curious creatures, also known as the “Canaries of the Sea.” Fortunately, we still got our orchestra–chirping, whistling, and grunting—the beluga whales, Little White and Little Grey, excitedly embraced us, snatching their water toys, ready for action. Meeting the gaze of our photographers, they knew their cue.
It was showtime.
The stars of the sea
The female belugas, Little Grey and Little White were aquatic performers in a past life. They were captured from the Arctic waters of Russia at two or three years old. From Russia, they were sold to an aquarium in Shanghai to provide entertainment for visitors.
Eventually, the aquarium was acquired by Merlin Entertainments, not believing in keeping whales in captivity, and the pair was flown across the globe from Changfeng Ocean World to the SEA LIFE Trust marine sanctuary off the south coast of Iceland, in Vestmannaeyjar. The goal for the 14-year-old beluga whales is to move into an open-water sanctuary at Klettsvík Bay this summer. SEA LIFE Trust, a UK-based marine conservation charity, hopes the project can become a model for the rehoming of almost 3,000 other cetaceans currently in captivity.
However, the beluga whales have yet to fully move into the lagoon after residing in Iceland for two years. Last summer, they were moved into the open-water sanctuary but Little White turned out to be slightly less adventurous than anticipated. While Little Gray echo-located herself around the 32,000 square meter lagoon, Little White showed hesitation. SEA LIFE Trust decided to renovate the sanctuary bay this year. By sectioning off a part of the sanctuary, they’re hoping to develop a middle-ground for Little White until she becomes more comfortable with the new environment.
Part-time puffin rescuers
Belugas aren’t the only ones finding sanctuary in Iceland. The SEA LIFE Trust team also cares for puffins–some are brought in as pufflings and may become resident puffins; unfortunately, not all can be released back to the wild. Some struggle to fly or aren’t able to produce the oils to waterproof their feathers—one is even afraid of water.
Right away, the team put us to work. Feeling like we were on an episode of “Dirty Jobs,” Jessica, the beluga curator, initiated us into the cleaning process of the puffin’s artificial burrows—handing over a brush and hose, we scrubbed and sprayed away. The team also checks for the waterproofing of the puffins’ feathers, created by their preen glands, and is essential to their survival in the wild. Wet and sprinkled with Puffin poop, we quickly realized it’s a lot of work caring for these little seabirds! Move over Mike Rowe, we’re coming for you.
Plunging with bubble-headed belugas
The strikingly giant mammals clock in at four meters long and 900 kilograms and consume about 24 kilograms of fish each day. To keep them mentally stimulated, both whales have six daily training sessions to prepare them for their eventual move to Klettsvík and possible medical emergencies; both caretakers emphasize that positive reinforcement is key. Frankly, it almost seemed like training a dog—just in a pool and quadrupled in size!
Our excitement had peaked. We suited up and pulled on waders. Unsure of what was next, the team called us down onto a platform lowered into the pool. You heard that right—we were IN the water. Settling down next to the belugas, ready to assist with practicing blood sampling. Eager for attention, they swam right up to us, wiggling their bulbous melonheads. To be clear, we’re not head-shaming them—full of fatty acids, the melons help the whales echolocate and communicate with various sounds. We couldn’t help but feel starstruck by the size and vibrancy of the whales, making us question if this was all a dream we had yet to wake up from.
Little White and Little Grey are patiently preparing for their move to Klettsvík Bay. We’re eagerly rooting for their success and for SEA LIFE Trust’s approach eventually becoming a model for thousands of others currently in captivity. As their biggest fans, we’re rooting for their new adventure, exploring the flora and fauna of their eventual sub-Arctic home.
If you’re eager for some video footage of our day at the Beluga whale sanctuary, check it out:
Check out the Beluga whale sanctuary here and plan a visit!
Rental car provided by Go Car Rental.
Ferry provided by Herjólfur.
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