The beluga whales leading the way for marine mammal rehabilitation

Written by Alicia Shephard

After a decade of being held captive for entertainment, two beluga whales are being re-released into the ocean – paving the way for marine mammal rehabilitation around the world.

A captive beluga whale interacts with a family of visitors at an aquarium in China

After being ripped from their home at just three years old and forced to spend over 10 years in captivity, ‘Little Grey’ and ‘Little White’ are submerging their fins in the ocean once again. The two beluga whales, who have spent much of the last decade performing for visitors at the Changfeng Ocean World in China, are finally being released back into the wild. This momentous move could lead the way for the release of captive aquatic species around the world, including thousands of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that have not been so lucky.

Around the world marine mammals are kept in captivity for human entertainment. Many are captured from the wild and transported long distances to live out their days sedentary in a chlorinated tank, or performing tricks in return for food. In recent years there has been an increase in public awareness of the inhumane conditions these captive animals’ experience, as well as calls to end the practice. However, our increasing love of travel, tourism and entertainment abroad continues to drive demand.

A pair of captive killer whales performing tricks for visitors (and their food)

In the wild, whales like belugas and other cetaceans, can travel hundreds of miles every day as they hunt for food and socialise. They can dive several hundred meters at a time and normally spend as much as 90 per cent of their time under the water’s surface. But life in captivity is very different. Despite being sociable creatures, family groups are often divided and can be traded between different facilities. And the tanks themselves will never be large enough. Even in the latest facilities these wild animals have less than 0.0001 per cent of their usual habitat range which can render them motionless 70% of the time. Despite this, in China, where Little Grey and Little White spent their entertaining years, the number of ocean theme parks has jumped from 39 in 2015 to 76 in early 2019 – potentially doubling the number of marine mammals in captivity in China alone.

But Little Grey and Little White had a lucky escape. When Merlin Entertainment took over the Chinese aquarium the two beluga’s called home, a plan was made to return the whales to the wild. As a species used to a cooler climate, the Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland seemed as good a place as any to rehome the whales. The journey across the world began in 2019 when the couple were moved to a temporary care facility in Iceland. Whilst here, Little Grey and Little White were prepared for the move to the Arctic Ocean. Additions of blubber were made and the pair were introduced to more natural ecosystems. Then in August 2020 the whales were moved to their new home in what can only be described as a military-style operation. Initially the pair will stay in specialised care pools while they get used to their new home, but they’ll eventually be released into a 32,000-square-metre sea pen.

An inquisitive beluga whale interacts with humans in the wild, a much more enjoyable experience for both parties than being seperated by a pane of glass

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation more than 300 belugas worldwide are held in captivity today. And as with other cetaceans and marine mammals, death rates double in captivity compared to the wild. With belugas being categorised as near threatened species in terms of their endangered status, this move signifies a huge milestone for captive belugas around the world. Being released into the wild extends their lifespans and provides the opportunity for the population size to increase. But what does it mean for other marine mammals?

The creation of the new Beluga Whale Sanctuary is a key moment in marine mammal welfare. It’s the first time in history that an entire sanctuary has been created to rehabilitate captive cetaceans. The move signifies that captive beluga whales can not only be relocated from captive environments, but they can be transported long distances and retrained to cope with their natural habitat as well. Ahead of their sea transfer the whales were able to develop the necessary adaptations they would need for survival. They were taught to hold their breath for longer, become physically stronger to cope with tides and gain blubber to withstand the freezing ocean temperatures.

The relocation has the potential to inspire other facilities holding captive cetaceans, to consider the release of these creatures in the future. Audrey Padgett, who moved to Iceland from South Carolina in order to manage this sanctuary, had this to say: “It’s a step forward to show that there is a more natural alternative, especially for belugas who have either been in captivity or who have been raised in captivity. People’s attitudes continue to change. People know more and more about these animals – how smart they are, how social they are and I think that inspires people to want to do better for them.”

A pod of wild belugas exploring the expansive icy waters of their Arctic habitat

For over a decade Little White and Little Grey had nothing more than a large tub to swim in. Now they have the freedom to swim in 32,000-square-metres of ocean, splashing freely in the habitat they were designed to be a part of. They’re unaware of the impact they’ve had on the future of not only belugas, but cetaceans and marine mammals worldwide. But we know marine mammals don’t belong in captivity and now, thanks to Little Grey and LIttle White, we know how to rehabilitate them. This makes now as good a time as any to curb our need for travel entertainment and give marine mammals a second chance at life in the ocean.


Alicia is a BSC (Hons) Zoology graduate from the University of Sheffield. She is currently working as a Research Content Producer at the University of Sheffield producing content on an array of subjects from nuclear waste to sustainable food practices. You can follow her on Twitter @AliciaShephard3 or connect with her on Linkedin here.

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