The beaming, winsome smiles on the faces of these two beluga whales say it all. After being held in captivity for nearly 10 years, Little Grey and Little White are finally being rehomed in an 8-acre sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay in Iceland.
The pair were first captured in their juvenile times by a Russian whale research center in 2011. Afterward, they were relocated to Chanfeng Ocean World aquarium in China and has been performing tricks to a gaping audience for nearly 10 years. The Chinese aquarium was purchased by Merlin Entertainments the following year and being a company opposed to keeping captive whales and dolphins, the idea of relocation rooted quickly.
Touring in trucks, tugboats, and cranes, the journey has been easy for neither the two whales nor their caretakers. “It’s been quite the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, the general manager of the Beluga Whale Sanctuary told CNN. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love.”
The relocation project is years in the making and it’s finally coming to a happy ending. Their much “larger, natural” new home is run by the Sea Life Trust, the British charity that arranged a safe journey for the two belugas.
A year ago, the pair was transported to Iceland from the aquarium in China over a distance of 6000 miles. There, the whales are cared for in a temporary care facility with a quarantine pool in order to let them adapt to the much colder temperatures.
“We’re absolutely delighted to be able to share the news that Little Grey and Little White are safely in their sea sanctuary care pools and are just one step away from being released into their open water home,” exclaimed Andy Bool, head of the Sea Life Trust.
“Following extensive planning and rehearsals, the first stage of their release back to the ocean was as smooth as we had hoped and planned for.”
Rehoming two beluga whales each weighing over a ton is no easy task and the Covid-19 pandemic has only made it worse.
With the combined effort of an expert care team, veterinarians, and masses of water and ice, their final release to the wider sanctuary will happen very soon.
Beluga whales are among the smallest species of whales ranging from 4 to 6.1 meters in length and 901 to 1,361 kilograms in weight. They live in the cold waters throughout the Artic and some subarctic locations in a variety of habitats ranging from deep offshore to shallow bays. Their dives last up to 25 minutes and can reach a depth of 800m. Being extremely sociable, they usually live, hunt, and migrate in pods.
Like polar bears, their dependency on sea ice for existence makes them outright vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Currently, the beluga whale population is about 200,000 in the wild.
Padgett told CNN that there are more than 300 belugas in captivity around the world. She further pointed out that in addition to being restricted from their natural habitat, some are even 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,” she added.
Until they are ready to get back to the ocean environment and survive on their own, Little Grey and Little White are assessed around the clock by their expert caretakers. Their new home also gives them space to explore new kinds of seaweed, kelp, and fish. Moreover, the whole process of transportation and rehoming has helped humans understand belugas better.
“It’s kind of the finish line for these two,” she said, “but it’s a new chapter for belugas around the world.”
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Scroll down to see what people said about the pair and their new home.