Off the arctic coast of Russia, ten years ago, two young beluga whales were captured and taken into captivity. First, they were sent to a coastal research facility. Then, they were sold to a marine park in China. There, they were trained and exploited for entertainment, and life for the pair — much like for the thousands of other cetaceans currently in captivity — looked bleak.
But then their fate changed, and a decade later, the whales, now named Little White and Little Grey, are becoming famous pioneers, or “ambassadors,” as Andy Bool, head of charitable organization Sea Life Trust, describes it. Because soon, they will be returned to the sea.
Sea Life Trust is the charitable partner of Merlin Entertainment, a UK-based company known for its entertainment attractions, including Madam Tussaud’s wax museums, Legoland parks, and other theme parks around the world. Captive whales were not part of the company’s idea of entertainment. In 2012, Merlin acquired Changfend Ocean World in Shanghai, where Little White and Little Grey were being held, and they vowed to end the whale show.Through partnerships with Sea Life Trust, and another charitable group, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the plan was quickly hatched “to find an alternative solution for Little White and Little Grey,” says Bool, “which would move them out of that, into a more natural environment.”
The task was not a quick nor easy one, though. Little White and Little Grey had been held in captivity for so many years that they could not be simply set free. Instead, the search was on for an ideal location to build the world’s first open-sea whale sanctuary.
“You need an environment that very closely matches the environment they came from,” explains Bool, “and provides a sheltered space to create an area that is safe.” Also required, was a location that would allow for the construction of a land-side care facility, “which allows you to quarantine the animals when they first arrive to the sanctuary, and also gives you another safe space if for any reason they were to get into difficulties or become ill.”
After four long years of searching, the perfect spot was finally found, off the Icelandic island of Heimaey, in Klettsvik Bay. The bay, says Bool, “is 32,000 square meters in size, which is about 30 times bigger than the space they came from in Shanghai. It’s up to ten metres deep in places as well, so a lot deeper than the pool in Shanghai. And it’s enclosed on three sides by cliffs, which shelter it from the worst excesses of the weather,” he says. “It also gave us the opportunity to net-off that section of bay from the open ocean, to create that safe space.” And to top it off, says Bool, there was space for that necessary care facility, 1400 meters away from the bay, “or just seven minutes by boat.”
That care facility is where Little White and Little Grey are today.
After the monumental journey from China, spanning more than thirty hours, via road, air and ferry, and for which the whales and their carers required much preparatory work, Little White and Little Grey, landed safely in Iceland, this past summer. The whales are now being quarantined, and slowly acclimatized to what is to come: their next and final move, back to the ocean this spring.
When they are out in the bay, they will have the ability to explore, and they will be seeing things they haven’t seen since they were very young whales.
“Because they were in an enclosed space indoors, in warmer water,” says Bool, speaking of the marine park, “they don’t have as thick a blubber layer as they would need in the wild.” The whales now dine on more of the types of fish they would eat in the wild, to grow that important layer. They are also learning to build up their stamina, to swim more, and spend more time under water holding their breath. The temperature of the water is also slowly being decreased, to reach what they can expect in the ocean.
“They’re acting like belugas,” Bool says with pride. “They are inquisitive,” they are interacting well with each other, and wanting to be occupied. “When they are out in the bay, they will have the ability to explore, and they will be seeing things they haven’t seen since they were very young whales.”
The hope of course, is that Little White and Little Grey, will be just the start. As Bool remarks, “two whales does not a sanctuary make.” Once they are moved to the bay, the two will be studied to see how well they adapt, and ultimately how this experience could be applied to other cetaceans in captivity. “Whilst this at its heart is very much about Little White and Little Grey at the moment, and providing them with an alternative natural life,” another aim, says Bool, is to “demonstrate that it can be done,” and to “track and show the positive changes that it has on them.” Bool calls Little White and Little Grey “ambassadors,” for the 300 other belugas in captivity around the world, “and more widely than that, the 3000 cetaceans.”
Bool says that while being the world’s first whale sanctuary brings a lot of challenges, “it also brings a lot of opportunities to create the blueprint that others can take and follow.” But for now, Little White and Little Grey are just busy eating, swimming and preparing, for that last leg of the journey, back to the sea.