Little Grey and Little White are about to relocate to a spacious new home half a world away. (Photo: SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary/for China Daily)
Two beluga whales living in a Shanghai aquarium will make a journey of more than 9,223-kilometre next year to a new open-water sanctuary in Iceland.
The "groundbreaking marine welfare project", the world's first sanctuary for beluga whales, was unveiled this week by the Sea Life Trust in partnership with Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
The female whales, known as Little Grey and Little White, will travel early next year from Chengfeng Ocean World in Shanghai to a secluded bay off Heimaey Island, which is off the south coast of Iceland.
Klettsvik Bay on Heimaey Island off the south coast of Iceland, where the whales will live. (Photo: SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary/for China Daily)
Their new home is around 32,000 square meters and will be closed off with special netting.
The charity Sea Life Trust said the location is ideal because the cool coastal waters around the island provide a subarctic habitat, which is natural for belugas.
British-based Merlin Entertainments acquired Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in 2012, where the two whales had been performing for visitors.
Trainers from Chengfeng Ocean World in Shanghai work with Little Grey. (Photo: SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary/for China Daily)
Sea Life, Merlin's aquarium brand, is opposed to cetaceans such as whales and dolphins being kept in captivity for entertainment purposes. Merlin Entertainments provided a “substantial donation” to Sea Life Trust, a partner of Sea Life, to cover the costs of building the sanctuary and relocating the belugas.
"This project has been years in the making," said Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust. "This is a truly global effort and, working with our partners, leading veterinarians, and marine experts, we believe providing a more natural habitat for Little Grey and Little White to dive into cool waters and interact with the natural environment will greatly enhance their quality of life."
Rob Hicks, director of Merlin's animal and welfare department, said: “The collaboration between the two parties has been phenomenal, the key to that is to have a common aim and common goal and our colleagues in China are very excited about this project and thus it makes communication with us very clear.”
A trainer from Chengfeng Ocean World in Shanghai attends to Little White and Little Grey. (Photo: SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary/for China Daily)
The beluga whales, which originated in Russia and have spent most of their lives in captivity, will be prepared for the journey and acclimatized once they arrive in Iceland through carefully designed programs. These include introducing the 12-year-olds to specialist equipment, such as the stretchers that will be used to lift and secure them during the journey, and training the whales to hold their breath for longer under water, so they are ready to dive in the deeper water. They will also get conditioning training to build their strength, so they can cope with tides and the current in their new home. And their calorie intake will be increased, so they put on the extra blubber they need to be insulated against the cold.
The journey from China to Iceland will take more than 30 hours and includes legs across air, land, and sea. A team of experts and vets will keep a close eye on Little Grey and Little White throughout the journey, monitoring both their physical and mental wellbeing.
Little White will undergo training. (Photo: SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary/for China Daily)
Iker Wang, head trainer at Chengfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, said people there have mixed feelings about the whales leaving.
"We'll be sad to see them leave but we understand they come from nature, so this project is allowing them to go back home," Wang said. "We all feel happy for Little Grey and Little White and I'm proud to be involved in what is an unprecedented global project."
Little Grey at home in Shanghai. (Photo: SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary/for China Daily)
The people behind the sanctuary hope it will inspire other facilities to release captive whales and dolphins into more natural environments and help end whale and dolphin performances.
More than 3,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises are held in captivity around the world.