Around the world, there are more than 3,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises being held in captivity—a practice that, critics say, deprives complex, intelligent animals of the dynamic environment they would encounter in the wild. Now, after six years of planning, two beluga whales that have been kept at a marine park in China are getting the chance to start fresh in a new open-water sanctuary in Iceland—the first of its kind for belugas, according to Sasha Brady of Lonely Planet.
The refuge is located in a secluded natural inlet of Klettsvik Bay in the Westman Islands, which, incidentally, is where Free Willy was filmed. Netting will enclose the inlet, but there is plenty of space for the belugas to swim and dive; the waters are 30 feet deep and the area spans 34,455 square feet—roughly the size of six football fields, as Thrillist’s Kastalia Medrano points out.
This change in environment will be a significant shift for the two belugas called Little White and Little Grey, who are both female and 12 years old. They were captured in Russian waters and, according to Medrano, have spent most of their lives performing for visitors at Shanghai’s Changfeng Ocean World.
The sanctuary project is being helmed by Sea Life Trust, with support from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). Sea Life Trust is funded by the attraction conglomerate Merlin Entertainments, which acquired Changfeng Ocean World in 2012. Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust, tells Smithsonian that Merlin “has a long-held belief that cetaceans such as whales and dolphins should not be kept in captivity for the use of public entertainment,” and that the company began investigating options for rehoming Little White and Little Grey after the whales came into its care. Bool also said the belugas are the only cetaceans currently held at Changfeng Ocean World.
Relocating captive animals to natural environments is not a simple task. Not all whales and dolphins that have spent the bulk of their lives in a tank are suitable for reintroduction to the wild, and choosing a location for a planned sanctuary requires a host of careful considerations. Before settling on the Klettsvik refuge as a new home for Little Grey and Little White, experts had to assess the sea bed and water quality, make sure that noise levels were not so high as to cause the whales stress, and analyze wave and swell levels to confirm that the belugas would not become motion sick.
Figuring out a way to transport the hulking marine creatures, which each weigh around 2,000 pounds, across the 6,000-mile journey from China to Iceland posed another steep challenge. According to Sea Life Trust, the whales will first be lifted onto custom-made stretchers and placed in transportation tanks, which will be hoisted out of the aquarium by crane. Two trucks will then transport the animals to Shanghai’s Pu Dong International Airport, where a cargo plane will be waiting to fly them to Reykjavik. Once in Iceland, Little Grey and Little White will be loaded onto trucks and transported via ferry to Heimaey Island, and from there they will be driven to Klettsvik Bay. The trip, which was meticulously planned by an international team of experts with experience moving marine mammals, will take around 30 hours.
But even with this plan in place, Little Grey and Little White could not simply be moved from their aquarium environment to Icelandic waters. In the wild, belugas primarily live in frigid areas with plenty of Arctic sea ice, but Little Grey and Little White are used to relatively warm waters. In preparation for the relocation, the belugas’ caloric intake was increased to bulk them up with insulating blubber. Experts also gradually introduced the belugas to smaller animals—like crab and other shellfish—and plant life that they will encounter in their new habitat.
Little Grey and Little White are now due to arrive in Iceland on June 19. Visitors to the Klettsvik Bay area will be able to catch a glimpse of the belugas on small, carefully managed boat trips. A visitor center and a puffin sanctuary at the site are also open to the public, reports Michele Debczak of Mental Floss. As WDC explains, making the sanctuary accessible to visitors helps support the refuge financially and spread the word about the push to move captive marine mammals to more appropriate settings.
“It is hoped the project will help to encourage the rehabilitation of more captive whales into natural environments in the future,” the WDC says, “and one day help to bring an end to whale and dolphin entertainment shows.”