World's first sanctuary for beluga whales to open in Iceland

Published 02.07.2018 00:00
World's first sanctuary for beluga whales to open in Iceland

The Sea Life Trust has launched a ground-breaking project by opening the world's first beluga whale sanctuary. Two beluga whales named Little Grey and Little White will be taken from China to Iceland in a 6,000-mile journey in spring 2019. Project partner the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC) believes that the Sea Life Trust will play a leading role in encouraging the release of captive whales and dolphins in the future. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whales Sanctuary, the world's first open water sanctuary, will be located in Iceland and is one of the largest projects in the world that cares and protects captive whales and dolphins. It is also the first of its kind to be created for cetaceans. The project is expected to encourage people to rehabilitate more captive whales in their natural habitats and help end the use of whales and dolphins in entertainment shows.

The two female beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, will be the first residents of the sanctuary and will set out on a journey from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China to arrive at a natural bay at Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, located off the southern coast of Iceland. The journey will involve transportation by sea, air and land.

The enclosed bay, which measures 32,000 square meters and is 10 meters deep, has been chosen to provide a natural half-polar and wild environment for whales.

Head of the Sea Life Trust Andy Bool said: "We're delighted to break new ground in marine animal welfare with the creation of the world's first sanctuary for beluga whales. This project has been years in the making and is a pioneering solution to how the aquarium industry can reshape the futures of whales in captivity."

Bool added that providing a more natural habitat for Little Grey and Little White to dive in cool water and interact with the natural environment will greatly enhance their quality of life.

The preparations at the sanctuary have been ongoing since the necessary permissions were granted in April. It will be established on a natural sea inlet in Klettsvik Bay and have a nursing center and a visitor center.

Little Grey and Little White are both 12 years old and have unique characteristics. While Little White is shy and introverted, Little Grey is more vocal and mischievous. These belugas will be put into a special training program with world-famous vets and marine animals. The aim of this program is to prepare them for the journey, help them adapt to the waters of the North Atlantic and get used to the climate. To prepare them for the journey, the whales are now being introduced to professional equipment such as stretchers. They are being trained to hold their breath underwater for longer and to swim faster so that they can cope better with tides and currents at the sanctuary. Also, their calorie intake of a rich diet of herring and capelin is being increased to create the extra blubber they will need in Iceland's cold subarctic waters.

Director of Merlin Entertainment's Animal and Welfare Department Rob Hicks said: "This is a complex and logistically challenging re-homing project of two well-loved beluga whales. Little Grey and Little White are highly intelligent marine mammals and are fast learners, but we are taking all precautions to protect their health and well-being. The aquarium team at Changfeng Ocean World have been very helpful in supporting this project and we will be helping each beluga to get ready for this landmark journey and their new environment. A team of vets will be with the whales all times during transit to monitor their welfare to ensure their relocation is successful."

The sanctuary is planned to be completed in 2019. Visitors will be offered limited and discreet viewing of the whales to help decrease long term running costs. Visits will be very carefully controlled to ensure the two whales are not disturbed in their new and very natural environment.

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