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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Aaron Chown via PA Images Tanks carrying two Beluga Whales are inspected as they are unloaded from an aircraft in Iceland

Two 'showbiz' whales from Shanghai aquarium moved to sanctuary in Iceland

The whales, Little White and Little Grey, were sold to Changfeng Ocean World aquarium some 10 years ago.

TWO ‘SHOWBIZ’ BELUGA whales from an aquarium in Shanghai have arrived in Iceland to be taken to their new home in a sanctuary. 

The 12-year-old whales, Little White and Little Grey, were captured in Russian waters and sold to Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai some 10 years ago.

The mission to relocate them began when Changfeng Ocean World was acquired by Merlin Entertainment, a British corporation that owns Legoland and other theme parks.

The company, which has a policy against captive whales and dolphins, teamed up with the wildlife fund Sea Life Trust to spearhead the effort.

“We are sad to see them leave but we understand that they come from nature,” the head trainer at Chengfeng aquarium said in a press statement.

Conservationists yesterday celebrated when the plane from Shanghai carrying the whales touched down in Iceland. 

“The whales did well on the flight and are in good shape,” a logistic expert said.

After an 11-hour flight, the pair’s tank was loaded onto a truck for a drive to a harbour and the last leg of their journey, a 30-minute boat ride to the Westman Islands archipelago.

There, they are set to stay in a specially designed indoor pool for 40 days while caretakers increase their food intake to build up extra blubber for heat insulation.

Then, the whales, expected to reach 35 to 50 years of age, will be the first aquatic animals to inhabit the sanctuary.

Their home will be a 344,445-square-foot sea pen at a pristine creek called Klettsvik, accessible by whale-watching boats.

Open-water sanctuary for Beluga Whales Aaron Chown Klettsvik Bay, Heimaey Island, Iceland, where the whales are being rehomed Aaron Chown

Native home

Beluga whales are native to the Arctic Ocean, not the North Atlantic surrounding Iceland.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 135,000 mature Beluga whales live in Arctic waters.

The Russian region is known for “whale jails” where orcas and beluga whales are available for purchase.

Beluga whales carry a price tag of about $150,000 (€132,689). Many of these whales are reportedly sold to sea-parks in China, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

The release of Little Grey and Little White reflects a worldwide movement against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. 

However, one research professor at the University of Iceland, Marianne Helene Rasmussen, has question what the massive operation has accomplished. 

Whale-watching, to her, is about seeing the mammals in their natural surroundings.

Rasmussen said: 

Why bring two whales, whose species is not naturally in Icelandic water, and keep them in captivity here?

Despite the dramatic life change, Little White and Little Gray have not withdrawn from the public eye. Their presence on the Westman Islands is expected to be a drawcard for a town with 4,000 residents. One local tour operator is already taking bookings.

Around 3,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are held in tanks globally, according to wildlife charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Includes reporting by Associated Press

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