Sanctuary for Retired Belugas: A World First

  • © Sea Life Trust
    20 / 06 / 2019 Par Marie-Ève Muller

    Two belugas left an aquarium in Shanghai, China, to fly to Iceland. The two whales are now becoming residents of the world’s first sanctuary for retired whales. The goal: to bring them back to an environment similar to that of their origin, without shows or tours to perform.

    Litla-Hvít (“Little White”) and Litla-Grá (“Little Grey”) were born in Russia twelve years ago, but spent the majority of their lives in aquariums, where they put on shows. They will still be visible to the public, but will no longer perform. Trainers and caretakers will monitor both whales, which are accustomed to human contact.

    The 9650-kilometre journey from China to Iceland lasted about thirty hours. The belugas were transported by truck, plane and boat, all while being closely monitored by their trainers and caretakers. They will then spend a few days in quarantine to ensure they do not contaminate their new environment. Their move was due to start on April 18, 2019, but was rescheduled on account of weather conditions in Iceland.  They finally left on June 19 and joined the quarantine tank on June 20.

    What Is a Sanctuary?

    The Klettsvik bay measures about 32 000 m square and goes as deep as 10 m. © Sea Life Trust

    A sanctuary is a confined area in a bay or a natural cove. It is a sort of compromise between captivity in an aquarium and release into the natural environment. Why not just release the two belugas in Russia where they were originally captured? As they are strongly imprinted on humans, the belugas are unlikely to be able to feed on their own, navigate or socialize with other belugas.

    In order to keep the animals in the sanctuary, a net or structure prevents the belugas from escaping while also preventing cetaceans and other large animals from entering from the outside. Fish should be able to enter. A sanctuary is located in a natural environment, meaning it is in a marine environment and in untreated water that is often colder than that of an aquarium pond. Also, the size of the sanctuary pool is much larger than that of an aquarium. Furthermore, animals are not required to perform routines or activities for the sake of human entertainment. In both cases, the animals are cared for, fed and interact with the care team.

    At the sanctuary in Iceland, an interpretation centre will allow visitors to discover the beluga community and their history. Profits from the centre will be used to care for the belugas. The project is supported by two UK-based organizations, namely Sea Life Trust and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), as well as Merlin Entertainments.

    A second sanctuary could be built within the next few years, this time in Canada. The Whale Sanctuary Project plans to create the first sanctuary in North America for captive and injured belugas and killer whales. The future site has not yet been designated, but it appears likely that it will be in Nova Scotia. The objective is to provide a peaceful end-of-life for cetaceans that have lived their lives in captivity and cannot be released back into the wild.

    Gearing Up to Move

    The belugas were trained for more than a year in preparation for their big move. They steadily put on weight in order to acclimatize their bodies to the cold waters of the natural bay. Trainers taught them to be transported in order to mitigate their stress levels. Elements from Klettsvík Cove such as fish, crustaceans and seaweed were also introduced into their pool in Shanghai in an effort to get them accustomed to their new environment in advance.

    The belugas are trained to be moved. © Sea Life Trust

    Learn more 

    Official website of the Beluga Whale Sanctuary

    Belugas in Aquariums: a Brief History (Whales Online)


    Marie-Ève ​​Muller is responsible for GREMM’s communications. As Editor-in-Chief for Whales Online, she devours research and has an insatiable thirst for the stories of scientists and observers. Drawing from her background in literature and journalism, Marie-Ève ​​strives to put the fragile reality of cetaceans into words and images.