A pair of belugas, named Little White and Little Grey, are enjoying their first taste of the sea since 2011, thanks to a leviathan relocation project that has been years in the making.
After being held captive at a very young age off the coast of Russia and spending years inside a Chinese aquarium, the belugas are about to get used to the freedom of an 8-acre sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay in Iceland.
“It’s been quite the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s general manager told CNN. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love.”
In 2011, Little White and Little Grey were moved from a Russian research facility to the Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai. In the next year, the aquarium was bought by Merlin Entertainments, a company opposed to keeping dolphins and whales in captivity. And so the idea of taking the whales back to the sea was born.
Padgett said that the whales’ new home, run by the Sea Life Trust charity, is a much “larger, natural environment” with lots of potential benefits. She also added that more than 300 belugas are in captivity around the world.
“Some belugas are in cramped and unsuitable conditions,” Padgett said. “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.”
Moving two belugas was not an easy task as they each weigh a little more than a ton and consume around 110 pounds of fish per day. The operation involved specially designed equipment, veterinarians, and a whole lot of water and ice to keep them hosed down, Padgett said.
She also added that the belugas had bespoke “stretchers” or slings to move them overland, and the team did “practice runs” to get them used to be moved via trucks, tugboats, and cranes.
“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 a comfortable as possible,” Padgett continued.
After their arrival in Iceland, the whales were kept in a care facility with a quarantine pool for several months, to allow them to adjust to the colder Icelandic environment.
“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,” Padgett said.
“We also needed to protect our staff and put them into quarantine, because we need our people to take care of our animals.”
Little White and Little Grey’s odyssey isn’t quite finished. They are currently in an “acclimatization space” within the sanctuary that will allow them to adjust safely to their new home. However, they will have free rein of the sanctuary any day now.
The belugas will be assessed around the clock as they get used to being back in the ocean environment.