Two belugas currently living in an aquarium in Shanghai, China, are getting ready to fly to Iceland. The two whales will become residents of the world’s first sanctuary for retired whales. The goal is to bring them back to an environment similar to that of their origin, without any shows or tricks 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 will last about thirty hours, if all goes well. The belugas will be 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. The new travel date has not yet been announced.

What Is a Sanctuary?

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.

porté par deux organisations britanniques, le Sea Life Trust et le Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), ainsi que par Merlin Entertainments. Le sanctuaire totalise près de 32 000 mètres carré et atteint des profondeurs de près de 10 mètres à certains endroits, donnant un espace de mouvement décuplé pour les bélugas habitués à vivre dans un espace restreint.

Un deuxième sanctuaire pourrait voir le jour au cours des prochaines années, cette fois au Canada. The Whale Sanctuary Project projette de créer le premier sanctuaire en Amérique du Nord pour les bélugas et épaulards ayant vécus en captivité ou ayant été blessés. Le futur site n’a pas encore été désigné, mais il semble probable qu’il sera en Nouvelle-Écosse. L’objectif est d’offrir une fin de vie paisible aux cétacés ayant été captifs et ne pouvant être relâchés dans la nature.

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.

Update August, 8, 2020

The first two residents of a whale sanctuary have now been swimming in Klettsvik Bay since August 8, 2020. Belugas “Little Grey” and “Little White” will be in a restricted part of ​​the bay for a while to get used to the tides, the presence of fish and the local climate. They have just spent over a year in an artificial acclimatization pool, after a long journey from an aquarium in China to Klettsvik, Iceland.

According to Sea Life Trust, the organization responsible for the sanctuary, the two whales should have full access to the entire bay shortly, once they get accustomed to their new surroundings. Little White and Little Grey will then find themselves in a natural bay enclosed by a net. They will remain visible to the public, but will no longer perform.

This globally unique habitat represents a good compromise between life in a natural environment and life in an aquarium for belugas that, like Little White and Little Grey, have spent the overwhelming majority of their lives in captivity. Because they are acclimated to humans, it is unlikely that they could be released into their natural habitat without compromising their chances of survival.

These two females had not been in the open sea since being transferred from their native Russia to an aquarium in Shanghai in 2011. A few years later, the new owners of the aquarium decided that the time had come for these belugas to retire. Iceland’s Klettsvik Bay was the site ultimately chosen to host them. Sea Life Trust hopes to be able to accommodate more belugas from aquariums in the future.

News - 30/4/2019

Marie-Ève Muller

Marie-Ève Muller is responsible for GREMM's communications and spokeperson for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergencies Response Network (QMMERN). 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.

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