Rehoming animals is a delicate business at the best of times. Rehoming two whales on a new continent during a global pandemic is about as hard as it gets.
Nevertheless, a pair of belugas, named Little Grey and Little White, are enjoying their first taste of the sea since 2011, thanks to a leviathan relocation project that has been years in the making.
After being captured at a very young age off the coast of Russia and spending years in a Chinese aquarium, the whales are about to get used to the freedom of an 8-acre sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay in Iceland.
“It’s been quite the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s general manager, told CNN on a video call in front of the belugas. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love.”
Back in 2011, Little Grey and Little White were moved from a Russian research facility to the Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai. The following year, the aquarium was bought by Merlin Entertainments, a company opposed to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.
And so the idea of taking the whales back to the sea was born.
The belugas’ new home, run by the Sea Life Trust charity, is a much “larger, natural environment” with lots of potential benefits, Padgett said.
More than 300 belugas are in captivity around the world, she told CNN.
“Some belugas are in cramped and unsuitable conditions,” she added. “And if what we can learn here from Little White and Little Grey can help improve welfare for other animals … that’s really the point.”
Although Padgett wasn’t involved in the logistics of transporting the whales from China, she stressed that moving two belugas was no easy task.
They each weigh a little more than a ton and consume around 110 pounds of fish per day between them.
The operation involved specially designed equipment, veterinarians and a whole lot of water and ice to keep them hosed down, Padgett said.
The belugas had bespoke “stretchers” or slings to move them overland, and the team did “practice runs” to get them used to being moved via trucks, tugboats and cranes, according to Padgett.
“If you’re trying to take your cat or your dog somewhere, you want them to have a positive association with travel … We had to make the belugas a comfortable as possible,” Padgett continued.
After their arrival in Iceland, the whales were kept in a care facility with a quarantine pool for several months, to allow them to adjust to the colder Icelandic environment.
And though the final leg of the journey from the care facility to the sanctuary was a shorter one, the Covid-19 pandemic complicated it significantly.
“We’re already in a pretty remote location here in Iceland. It affected our ability to get experts here to help us with the move. It affected our ability to get supplies and just the length of time it took to do things,” Padgett told CNN.
“We also needed to protect our staff and put them into quarantine, because we need our people to take care of our animals.”
Little Grey and Little White’s odyssey isn’t quite over. They are currently in an “acclimatization space” within the sanctuary that will allow them to adjust safely to their new home.
Padgett says, however, that they will have free rein of the sanctuary any day now.
Little Grey and Little White will be assessed around the clock as they get used to being back in the ocean environment.
And while the whales benefit from more space to explore and new kinds of seaweed, kelp and fish to enjoy, the whole operation also helps humans understand belugas better, Padgett explains.
“It’s kind of the finish line for these two,” she said, “but it’s a new chapter for belugas around the world.”