Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Long Journey From China to Iceland

The captive beluga whales at the Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. Image credit: Aaron Chown/PA

Little White and Little Grey perform during a show. Image credit: Aaron Chown/PA

Two captive beluga whales (Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas) from a Shanghai aquarium in China have arrived in Iceland to live out their days in a unique marine sanctuary that conservationists hope will become a model for re-homing 3,000 of the creatures currently in captivity. 

Little Grey and Little White, two 12-year-old female belugas, left behind their previous lives entertaining visitors at the Changfeng Ocean World and were flown halfway across the globe in specially built containers.

The whales, each weighing about 900kg and are four metres long, will continue their epic journey by truck and ferry to the haven at Klettsvik Bay at Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland. 

The conservation charity Sea Life Trust, which has been at the forefront of the project, said the bay is the world’s first open water beluga refuge and had been selected to “provide a more natural sub-Arctic environment and wilder habitat for these amazing whales to call home”. 

Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust, said: “We have been working with Little White and Little Grey for the last 18 months to make sure that they will be prepared and ready for the long journey”. 

After years in captivity, the whales will still be cared for in their new netted-off Icelandic sea pen, which covers 32,000 square metres and is 10 metres deep, because it is thought they would not survive on their own in the wild. 

UK-based Merlin Entertainments, which operate aquariums, took over Changfeng Ocean World in 2012 and started looking for a new home for Little Grey and Little White. 

The pair are originally from Russian Arctic waters and it is thought they were two or three years old when captured. 

The Shanghai-based whales have been trained to hold their breath for longer, become physically stronger to cope with tides and currents, and are putting on blubber to help them cope with the colder water temperatures. 

And the two will be studied by scientists to see how they adapt to their new home. If they thrive, they could live to between 40 and 60 years old. 

Depending on how Little Grey and Little White fare, the sanctuary could become home to other belugas as well. That's the plan anyway.

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