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2 captive beluga whales finally freed to a seawater sanctuary in Iceland

After a 30-hour journey by land, air and sea, two young beluga whales that were on show in an aquarium in Shanghai for years have now arrived at a new home — a cool seawater sanctuary off the coast of Iceland. This is the first time the cuties have dipped their smiling snouts into the sea in more than a decade.

The belugas, named Little White and Little Grey, have spent the last three days and nights in a netted-off "care pool" within the sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay on the island of Heimaey, in Iceland's southern Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. Because these captive whales couldn't survive in the open ocean, the sanctuary is the next best thing.

The island is home to about 4,000 people in a town about a 10-minute boat ride away, and the belugas will have lots of room to spread out — the sanctuary covers around 344,445 square feet (32,000 square meters) of seawater and is divided from the rest of the bay by netting that runs from the bottom to the surface.

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The young whales will spend about a month in the pool acclimating to their new environment, said Audrey Padgett, the general manager of the Sea Life Trust's Beluga Whale Sanctuary. 

The pool is fitted with underwater gates that the belugas can use to pass into another pool; eventually other underwater gates will be opened so they can explore the entire sanctuary.

So far, the two belugas seem content with their new surroundings, especially Little Grey, who spent some of Monday morning (Aug. 10) investigating a diving seabird — a razorbill — that had flown into the area.

The quieter of the two whales, Little White, was "taking her time, taking everything in," Padgett told Live Science. "They are both eating and interacting with the care staff, so that's a really positive sign."

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Little Grey and Little White are the first two belugas at the Sea Life Trust sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay in Iceland. The trust will consider finding more when they are used to their new environment.

Little Grey and Little White are the first two belugas at the Sea Life Trust sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay in Iceland. The trust will consider finding more when they are used to their new environment. (Image credit: PA Media/Aaron Chown)
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Little White is transferred into the "care pool", a netted-off area of the seawater sanctuary in Klettsvik Bay. The two belugas will live in the pool for about a month before they are released into the sanctuary.

Little White is transferred into the "care pool," a netted-off area of the seawater sanctuary in Klettsvik Bay. The two belugas will live in the pool for about a month before they are released into the sanctuary. (Image credit: PA Media/Aaron Chown)
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The beluga whale named Little Grey is transferred from a truck to a tugboat that will transport it to the seawater sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay.

The beluga whale named Little Grey is transferred from a truck to a tugboat that will transport it to the seawater sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay. (Image credit: PA Media/Aaron Chown)
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Little Grey and Little White were caught near Russia when they were about one year-old; they are now 12, and this will be the first time in more than 10 years they will experience the sea.

Little Grey and Little White were caught near Russia when they were about 1 year old; they are now 12, and this will be the first time in more than 10 years they will experience the sea. (Image credit: PA Media/Aaron Chown)

Beluga sanctuary

The two belugas are the first inhabitants of the new sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay. They are both about 12 years old and are expected to live into their 40s, so the sanctuary could be their home for years to come.

Padgett explained that Little Grey and Little White were captured in Arctic waters on the north coast of Russia when they were about a year old, and then sold to Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai in China. There they lived in an indoor pool, until a new owner started looking for more natural conditions for them.

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This is the first time in more than 10 years that Little Grey and Little White have experienced the sea, she said, but it's taken a lot of work to get them here.

The two whales each weigh about 1,980 pounds (900 kilograms) and so the 6,000-mile (9,600 km) journey to Iceland was a tricky one.

Each was placed inside specially-built transportation tanks that were lifted by a crane and placed on two trucks in Shanghai; they were then transferred to a Cargolux Airlines cargo jet, which flew them to Iceland's Keflavik Airport. From there, they were transferred onto trucks, which then took a ferry to Heimaey Island.

That was in 2019. And since then, the two belugas have lived in a pool at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary's visitor center at Klettsvik Bay, going through quarantine, assessments and acclimating to cooler water temperatures that better suit an Arctic whale species, Padgett said.

Seawater sanctuary

The Klettsvik Bay sanctuary has room for about 10 belugas, but there are no firm plans right now to add more, Padgett said.

"Our focus is still firmly on Little White and Little Grey, and getting them out into the larger sanctuary space," she said. "When [they] are out in that sanctuary, that opens the door for conversations about future belugas that could come and join them."

Roughly 300 belugas are kept in captivity around the world; most of them were raised in captivity and couldn't survive on their own in the open ocean, so a seawater sanctuary with 24-hour human care is their best bet, she said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

  • Dasho
    What a great story! I've almost forgotten whats it like to read something nice.
    It would be great to see more of this stuff. I'm pretty sure everywhere else has doom & gloom covered.
    Reply
  • jeanna
    Thanks so much! Great to get this feedback. Glad you enjoyed it. Jeanna
    Reply