They’re home at last.
Beluga whales Little Grey and Little White have finally been reunited with the sea after nearly a decade at a Chinese aquarium. The whales had been kept from their natural environment since 2011.
Last June, the pair were transported more than 6,000 miles from captivity in China to a sea sanctuary center in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland, reported CNN. Once there, caretakers kept the belugas in a quarantine pool before the charity group Sea Life Trust initiated the multistep process of physically taking the whales back to open water.
“The process was getting the belugas into a stretcher, out of their care pool, onto the back of a truck, two minutes to the tugboat, and the local tugboat here, onto the back of the tugboat, and then a five-minute journey out here,” Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust, told CNN. While an arduous journey, the mission felt noble, and Bool said it “was the best boat ride I’ve ever had in my life.”
For now, Little Grey and Little White are living in an acclimatization space, giving them time to adjust to their new, natural environment. Once ready, they’ll be moved out of their limited surrounds and into the wider, 32,000-square-mile sanctuary off Iceland’s south coast — the world’s first open-water reserve for belugas.
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“We can feed them, do medical checks, make sure that they’re adjusting well, get them comfortable swimming through the underwater gates here before we open that underwater gate into the bigger space,” explained Audrey Padgett, Sea Life Trust’s general manager.
At the moment, the newly freed belugas have the sanctuary to themselves, although possibly not for long.
“Little White and Little Grey hopefully aren’t the only residents of our beluga whale sanctuary. We hope other belugas will come and join us, and join them,” said Bool.
According to Sea Life Trust, more than 300 belugas are currently being held in captivity across the globe.
“If what we can learn here, from Little White and Little Grey, can help improve welfare for other animals, and share learnings and benefit them, that’s really the point,” said Padgett. “It’s kind of the finish line for these two, but it’s a new chapter for belugas around the world.”