Wildlife charities Sea Life Trust and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) will open the world’s first open water sanctuary for beluga whales next March in Iceland.
Located in Klettsvik Bay on the island of Heimaey, the 32,000-square-metre sea pen will provide a home for two 12-year-old female beluga whales called “Little White” and “Little Grey.” Construction in Klettsvik Bay – the location of the film Free Willy – has already begun. Plans for the sanctuary include a visitor centre and facilities to take care of the whales.
The two whales are currently being held at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China, where they continue to perform for visitors.
“Little White and Little Grey have been in the aquarium since 2011,” Andy Bool, Head of Sea Life Trust, told The Independent. “They’re still relatively young. Belugas can live to 40 or 50 years old in the wild. So the aim of the sanctuary is to provide a home for them for the rest of their natural life.”
Sea Life Trust said it received the necessary authorisation to move the whales from their current home to the sanctuary. However, it will be a long trip for the animals. On their 35-hour journey by air, land and sea, the whales will be accompanied by veterinarians and experts to ensure their health and safety are prioritised.
“It is a difficult process to transport them, and it can be quite stressful for them,” Cathy Williamson, WDC End Captivity Programme Lead, told The Independent. “Unfortunately the alternative is to leave them in their concrete tank in Shanghai, and that’s not good for their health and welfare either.”
Once the whales arrive at the bay, they will be kept in a nearby pool to allow them to acclimatise to the subarctic water. Experts are already helping the whales prepare for their new environment to ease the transition. Little White and Little Grey are receiving training to help them swim in tides and currents and to hold their breath for longer amounts of time, which will help them dive in the 10-metre-deep bay, according to The Telegraph.
Globally, there are over 3,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales kept in captivity. Sea Life Trust and WDC hope that the project will help other marine animals held in captivity by encouraging their rehabilitation into environments more closely resembling their natural habitats.
“Our Belugas will never be able to be released due to their dependency on humans, we simply want to retire them from public performances in line with our values,” Sea Life Trust explained in a statement reported by New Scientist.
Merlin Entertainments, which acquired Changfeng Ocean World in 2012, opposes holding dolphins, whales and other cetaceans in captivity for purposes of entertainment, reports The Telegraph. The company began looking for a new home for the two whales in 2012 and will finance the construction of the new habitat as well as the whales’ relocation.