Two beluga whales are about to take a trip from China to Klettsvík Bay in Iceland’s Westman Islands this month. The archipelago will be home to the world’s first open-sea beluga whale sanctuary, but some fear transporting these whales from one form of enclosure to another.
Hailing from Russian waters, Little Gray and Little White are 12-year-old female beluga whales, who were taken into captivity at a young age to perform at Changfeng Ocean World Zoo in Shanghai.
The couple’s retreat from zoological entertainment is being orchestrated by the Sea Life Trust, a British environmental organization dedicated to protecting marine wildlife. The multi-million pound project is billed as “one of the biggest developments in the care and protection of whales and dolphins in captivity in decades”.
After the whales’ voyage was postponed from April 16 due to bad weather, the belugas are finally ready to make the 10,000km, 30-hour journey from China to Iceland, traveling by plane, ferry and truck specially equipped before arriving at the sanctuary off Heimaey. Once there, scientists will assess the mental and physical fitness of Little Gray and Little White.
Adaptation is key
The average lifespan of a beluga is 40 to 60 years and there are an estimated 200,000 belugas in Arctic waters around Greenland, North America and Russia. Belugas are among the rare species of whales that do not have a dorsal fin on their back, which allows them to swim more easily under the ice floe.
“We are currently helping to prepare the beluga whales for their relocation,” said Tim Wang, senior curator at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, in a press release. Initial preparations and training with Little Gray and Little White began a year ago and involved teaching belugas to hold their breath underwater longer, increasing their diet to help them gain weight extra and acclimatize them to lower temperatures.
Klettsvík Bay was chosen because of its rich marine life and cold coastal waters that resemble the native subarctic habitat of beluga whales. Getting accustomed to the colder waters of a natural marine environment is one of the top priorities for these whales accustomed to Shanghai’s closed tanks.
An artificial 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 cannot be released into the wild.
“Beluga whales have individual personalities, just like us,” Iker Wang, head trainer at Chengfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, said in a press release. “While Little White is quite cautious and calmer, Little Gray is the opposite. She is brave and needs attention.
In 2002, the famous killer whale Keiko was released back into the wild after five years of training in Klettsvík Bay. A year later, the ‘Free Willy’ star died of pneumonia.
Once in the wild, Keiko turned to human sailors rather than other whales, highlighting one of the many risks involved in returning long-captive cetaceans to the wild.
Some activist groups in Iceland continue to criticize the creation of an indoor pool near Sanctuary Bay.
“We are grateful that the Sea Life Trust is offering to give these two beluga whales better living conditions than 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 windy weather in the Westman Islands, the belugas could end up spending a lot of time in indoor pools rather than the open bay. “We are afraid that they will go from one captive life to another captive life with a lot of additional stress.”
“It’s an animal welfare project, we’re just bringing something back to nature.”
Bringing back whales that have been held in captivity could pose a threat to biological pollution of the flora and fauna of Klettsvík Bay. This is why the research team and staff will closely monitor Little Gray and Little White in quarantine once they arrive.
“This is an animal welfare project,” says Páll Marvin Jónsson, a marine biologist involved in the project since 2016 and a former councilor for the Westman Islands. “We will only bring something back to nature.”
Páll understands that Iceland, one of only three countries that allows legal whaling, is in a dubious position to host the whale sanctuary. “We humans are contradictory in everything we do. But politics aside, this sanctuary is kind of a statement of where we’re headed.
The Beluga Sanctuary will also operate an adjacent puffin rescue center, where puffin chicks will be monitored and searched. There will also be a Visitor and Education Center, where visitors can travel to Klettsvík Bay on boat trips to see Little Gray and Little White. Sea Life Trust assures that these small boat trips will be carefully supervised and visitors will not be allowed to get too close.
Sea Life Trust, whose primary mission is to protect marine wildlife and habitats, is not ruling out the possibility of adding more whales to 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.”