Returning captive animals back into the wild, according to experts, is nearly impossible. However, for two 12-year old beluga whales that have spent most of their adult lives entertaining humans in an aquarium in Shanghai, China, they’ve found the next best thing to freedom, an open water sanctuary in Iceland.
Little Grey and Little White, the names given to the two female whales were captured in Russian Arctic waters when they were about two or three years old, will enjoy open water for the first time since 2011.
Andy Bool, head of the charity Sea Life Trust, said; “We’re delighted that they are safely in their sea sanctuary care pools.” Conservationists hope the sanctuary will be a model for releasing the roughly 3,000 whales and dolphins currently housed in traditional captive facilities or performing in shows around the world.
Adding; “We hope that by showing the way with our sanctuary, we will help to encourage the rehabilitation of more captive whales into natural environments and one day bring an end to whale and dolphin entertainment shows.”
The four-meter-long whales, each weigh about 900kg, (1,984 pounds), were flown 6,000 miles for over 30 hours in a 747 aircraft fitted with purpose-built containers from China, to a sanctuary in a bay on Iceland’s Heimaey Island.
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Sea Life Trust, a UK-based non-profit group working to protect marine mammals in captivity, rescued the whales after Merlin Entertainments took control of Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China in 2012, and started looking for a new safe environment to house the two female whales.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) helped found the facility, and is the world’s first open water sanctuary for belugas.
Nevertheless, after being in captivity for most of their adult lives, the whales needed to acclimate to their new, more natural surroundings. Arctic waters are considerably much colder than what the belugas experienced in China. Before the move, the whales needed to increase their daily calorie intake in order to add more protective blubber to their bodies, and actually learn how to extend their breathing time under much deeper water.
The whales will still require some sort of human care in the netted-off sea inlet, in that they will never survive on their own in the wild. However, the sanctuary will give them a much better life, and perhaps someday provide data in how captive whales could be released in the wild without human dependency.
WATCH: First beluga whale sanctuary in Iceland to welcome new arrivals next year pic.twitter.com/pGOkYkjiZJ— Reuters (@Reuters) July 7, 2018
The sanctuary features a large bay area, which is nearly 350,000 square feet. It gives rescued belugas the opportunity to swim and dive in a more natural environment.
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are highly complex and social creatures. They roam vast distances in the wild. However in captivity, they must live in small, barren enclosures, unlike their natural environments.
Danny Groves, the communications manager for the WDC acknowledged that captivity affects whales and dolphins in a number of different ways.
“We can only imagine what it must be like to be trapped in a small tank,” Groves said. “In the wild, they are used to traveling around 100 miles a day.”
A third beluga whale at the Changfeng Ocean World, in Shanghai, China named Jun Jun, was also scheduled to be released however, tragically died from a blood clot on the brain. She was 17 years old. Belugas typically live to about 60 years old in the wild. The Beluga Whale Sanctuary can accommodate up to 8 belugas comfortably.