April 18, 2021

Two Beluga Whales Rewild After Being Out Of The Ocean For Almost 10 Years

It is no wonder this beluga whale has such a large smile on his face – he’s finally been taken back to the ocean after being kept in captivity where he was forced to perform tricks. It is the first time the belugas have been in the sea since they were captured by a Russian whale research centre in 2011 and later taken to a water park in China.

Little Grey and Little White are now in a care pool and need time to get used to their new environment before they are released into a larger sanctuary in Klettsvik Bay off the south coast of the country.

The pair had been transported from China to a care facility on the Icelandic island of Vestmannaeyjar a year ago but now their 6,000-mile journey has finally come to a happy end.

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

According to the Sea Life Trust, a British charity who organized the journey for Little Grey and Little White’s ultimate freedom, the cetaceans traveled by air and boat; the pair were being quarantined and acclimated to their temporary home at Klettsvik Bay before their final release into the wider sanctuary. They have been living in the temporary care facility to add more blubber in order to ready them for the colder temperatures.

“It’s been quite the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s general manager, told CNN on a video call in front of the belugas. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love.”

Their journey consisted of being passengers on a Boeing 747-400ERF cargo aircraft. For their trip to Iceland, the belugas had been placed and carried in specially designed slings with foam to cushion them from any turbulence.

Image credits: The Press Association

“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,” stated 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.”

“We are carefully monitoring Little Grey and Little White with our expert care team and veterinarians and hope to announce their final release very soon.”

There are about 200,000 beluga whales in the wild, they are a distinctive white color and only grow up to 4 meters in length which is about twice the height of an adult human male.

Image credits: The Press Association

The belugas’ new home, run by the Sea Life Trust charity, is a much “larger, natural environment” with lots of potential benefits, Padgett said.

More than 300 belugas are in captivity around the world, she told CNN. “Some belugas are in cramped and unsuitable conditions,” she added. “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.”

Although Padgett wasn’t involved in the logistics of transporting the whales from China, she stressed that moving two belugas was no easy task.

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

They each weigh a little more than a ton and consume around 110 pounds of fish per day between them.

The operation involved specially designed equipment, veterinarians, and a whole lot of water and ice to keep them hosed down, Padgett said.
The belugas had bespoke “stretchers” or slings to move them overland, and the team did “practice runs” to get them used to being moved via trucks, tugboats, and cranes, according to Padgett.

“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.

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

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.

And though the final leg of the journey from the care facility to the sanctuary was a shorter one, the Covid-19 pandemic complicated it significantly.

“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 told CNN.

“We also needed to protect our staff and put them into quarantine, because we need our people to take care of our animals.”

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

Little Grey and Little White’s odyssey isn’t quite over. They are currently in an “acclimatization space” within the sanctuary that will allow them to adjust safely to their new home.

Padgett says, however, that they will have free rein of the sanctuary any day now.

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

Little Grey and Little White will be assessed around the clock as they get used to being back in the ocean environment.

And while the whales benefit from more space to explore and new kinds of seaweed, kelp, and fish to enjoy, the whole operation also helps humans understand belugas better, Padgett explains.

“It’s kind of the finish line for these two,” she said, “but it’s a new chapter for belugas around the world.”

Image credits: ABC News

Image credits: ABC News

Image credits: ABC News

Image credits: ABC News

To learn more about the operation, check out the video below

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