After being caught at a very young age off the coast of Russia and spending years in a Chinese aquarium, whales will get used to the freedom of an 8-acre sanctuary in Klettsvik Bay in Iceland.
“It was the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, general manager of the Beluga Whale Sanctuary, told CNN in a video call to the Beluga. “It has not been easy, but it has definitely been a love affair.”
In 2011, Little Gray and Little White were moved from a Russian research facility to the Changfeng Ocean World Aquarium in Shanghai. A year later, the aquarium was bought by Merlin Entertainments, a company that opposed keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.
And so the idea was born to take the whales back to the sea.
The new Beluga home, run by the Sea Life Trust charity, is a “larger, more natural environment”; with many potential benefits, Padgett said.
More than 300 Belugas are in captivity around the world, she told CNN.
“Some Belugas are in deficient and inadequate conditions,” she added. “And if what we can learn here from White White and Little Gray can help improve well-being for other animals … that’s really the issue.”
Although Padgett was not involved in whale transportation logistics from China, she stressed that moving the two belugas was not an easy task.
They each weigh a little over a ton and consume about 110 pounds of fish a day between them.
The operation involved specially designed equipment, veterinarians and plenty of water and ice to keep them saturated, Padgett said.
The Belugas had hit “extenders” or slings to move them to the ground, and the team did “practical runs” to teach them to move through trucks, lorries and cranes, according to Padgett.
“If you are trying to get your cat or your dog somewhere, you want them to have a positive connection to the trip … We had to make the Beluga as comfortable as possible,” Padgett continued.
Upon their arrival in Iceland, the whales were kept in a care facility with a quarantine pool for several months, to allow them to adapt to the colder Icelandic environment.
And though the last part of the journey from the facility to the sanctuary was a shorter one, the Covid-19 pandemic complicated it considerably.
“We are already in a fairly remote location here in Iceland. This affected our ability to get experts here to help us on the move. This affected our ability to get supplies and just the length of time it took to done things, “Padgett told CNN.
“We also need to protect our staff and quarantine them because we need our people to take care of our animals.”
The odyssey of Little Gray and Little White does not end at all. They are currently in an “acclimatization space” inside the sanctuary this will allow them to fit safely into their new home.
Padgett says, however, that they will have free sanctuary rule every day now.
Little Gray and Little White will be appreciated around the clock after learning to return to the oceanic environment.
And while whales gain more space to explore and new species of seaweed, kelp and fish to enjoy, the whole operation also helps people better understand Belugas, Padgett explains.
“It’s a kind of finish line for these two,” she said, “but it’s a new chapter for belugas all over the world.”