The task of re-homing animals is extremely challenging and entails huge responsibility. Given this fact, one can only imagine how difficult it’s going to be to have to take two beluga whales in the middle of a global pandemic to a another continent to be re-homed.
But, it has been done for these two beluga whales named Little Grey and Little White thanks to a relocation project that has been years in the making. The two belugas are now enjoying their first taste of the sea since 2011.
Both whales were captured when they were very young
The two beluga whales were captured off the coast of Russia. At the time, they were still very young and spent many years of their life performing in a Chinese aquarium. Now, that they have been relocated to Beluga Whale Sanctuary, run by British Charity Sea Life Trust, in Iceland, the two of them are slowly getting used to their new life of freedom.
Beluga whales are truly unusual creatures but their existence is in danger
A scientific and fantasy writer named Leonie Sophia van den Hoek who also is a marine biologist and scientific researcher stated that beluga whales are like the unicorns of whales since they are of an unusually beautiful white color. What makes them more unusual and distinct from other cetaceans is the absence of a dorsal fin.
The lives of these whales are only made harder because of the actions of humans. Sophia explained- “We are making their home – the sea – warmer and dirtier. Beluga whales live in open water areas close to the ice edge. They like it cold, and climate change is causing the ice in their habitats to melt. Another problem is our use of plastic. It was found in nearly every beluga whale that was tested”.
While this might sound absurd, it nevertheless, is a true fact. In a pioneering study, microplastics were found in the innards of 7 belugas that were found in Canada’s remote Arctic waters.
The two Belugas were safely transported to their new home
According to the charity, the two 12-year-old females safely arrived at Klettsvik Bay from where they were released into a bayside care pool. This was for a short period of time so that they could acclimatize to their new environment before being released into the wider sanctuary.
The world’s first beluga whale sanctuary
Klettsvik Bay is the first open water sanctuary for belugas in the world. The Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s general manger, Audrey Padgett on a video call with CNN said- “It’s been quite the journey for these two. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love”.
The life of Little Grey and Little White
After their capture the two beluga whales were transferred in 2011 from a Russian research facility to the Chengfeng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai. In the following year, a company called Merlin Entertainments bought the aquarium. As the company was against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity for entertainment, they proposed the idea of taking the whales back to the sea where they were born.
Little Grey and Little White are now in a new home, which in Padgett’s words is a much “larger, natural environment”. Padgett stated that there are more than 300 belugas in captivity around the world. She said- “Some belugas are in cramped and unsuitable conditions. And if what we can learn here from Little White and Little Grey can help improve welfare for other animals … that’s really the point”.
It was no easy task to move Little Grey and Little White
Moving the two beluga whales was by no means an easy or simple task. Each whale weighed a little more than a ton (2,000 pounds). They also consumed around 110 pounds of fish per day between them.
The requirements for this operation required veterinarians, specially designed equipment and a whole lot of water and ice to keep them hosed down. To move the whales overland, bespoke “stretchers” or slings were used.
To get the whales used to being moved via trucks, cranes, and tugboats, the team conducted some “practice runs”. “If you’re trying to take your cat or your dog somewhere, you want them to have a positive association with travel … We had to make the belugas as comfortable as possible”, Padgett explained.
The whales were kept in quarantine pool when they arrived in Iceland
Once the whales arrived in Iceland, for the first several months they were kept in a care facility with a quarantine pool. This was done to allow them to adjust to the colder Icelandic environment. The final part of the journey from the care facility to the sanctuary was less than 6,000- miles as compared to the journey from Chengfeng Ocean World, but, due to the pandemic it was significantly complicated.
Padgett said- “We’re already in a pretty remote location here in Iceland. It affected our ability to get experts here to help us with the move. It affected our ability to get supplies and just the length of time it took to do things. We also needed to protect our staff and put them into quarantine, because we need our people to take care of our animals”.
The whales are to be freed after they are fully acclimatized to their new home
Padgett explained that the two beluga whales will be freed any day from the sanctuary, but at the moment they are still in an “acclimatization space” within the sanctuary.
Van den Hoek expressed her happiness over the whales being moved from the aquarium in Shanghai to a cold seawater sanctuary in Iceland by saying- “Belugas are destined for a life in cold waters. The low temperature of the seawater and a big swimming place is a very good solution for whales who aren’t capable of going back to the Arctic. If they can adjust properly to the new situation, they will be fine”.
She also added that, “If we take care of our plastic waste and our use of gas, then we are also indirectly taking care of the beluga whale”.