SEALIFE Trust Beluga Sanctuary
The alternative for dolphinaria and dolphin shows; a sanctuary. Many people over the years have been using this term and concept, many of them being animal activists. Especially in the last few years this concept comes up often in the debate about captive cetaceans (dolphins and whales). In the broadest sense of the concept a Sanctuary should be a more natural environment that will serve as a refuge for former captive marine mammals. With the focus being mainly on animals who were used in shows and presentations. The more well known names in the animal activist industry like Ric O'Barry, Ingrid Visser and the German Jurgen Ortmüller have all mentioned these sanctuaries before as a better alternative for the current keeping of cetacaeans in zoological facilities. In fact, they all have expressed a desire to start such a project or even made an attempt, often asking funding from the public. The plan in these projects is often to retire current captive animals to such a sanctuary and in the longterm even release the animals back to the wild. Although this concept has been mentioned for many years now, nobody made an actual professional attempt so far, (not counting the failed and superficial projects where animals have actually died) that is until last year when SEALIFE Trust moved two beluga whales from a Chinese marine park to Iceland to prepare them for their new life in the first ever beluga sanctuary. Their sanctuary being Klettsvik bay, the same bay where the infamous orca "Keiko" from the "Free Willy" franchise was housed in an attempt to release him to the wild.
Remarkable is that this project was not initiated by an animal activist organisation, but by Merlin Entertainments, a major player in the themepark and aquarium industry. Merlin Entertainments is the owner of the many SEALIFE aquaria around the globe as well as wellknown themeparks like Alton Towers and the many Legoland locations. Merlin Entertainments used to have captive dolphins in a number of it's themeparks including Heidepark Soltau in Germany and Gardaland in Italy, they however shifted their policy in the last decade as being against keeping cetaceans for entertainment purposes. They have since phased out all their dolphin habitats and shows. In 2012 Merlin Entertainments purchased the Chinese aquarium where these two belugas were housed. They were then used as show animals. Because of their new policy they had to find a new destination for the two whales and that is how the sanctuary plan started to take shape. SEALIFE Trust is a charity that was already associated with the Cornish Seal Sanctuary and the several rescue operations within the SEALIFE aquarium locations. Together with the WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society) they coordinated this project. When I researched this project I mainly found opinions from people that were not very happy with this project. Both from the zoological facilities who are of course in a way feeling threatened by this sanctuary concept as it directly challenges their current way of cetacean keeping but also many activists did not seem very laudatory about this attempt. The animals have been prepared for their move to the sanctuary for almost a year. Since I am a supporter of conducting your own research and going to see things for yourself to make a judgement, I visited the animals right before their move, when they were still in their 'care pool' to learn more about this project. My findings and observations are in this article.
The Beluga Sanctuary is located on the Westman Islands or Vestmannaeyjar, a small group of islands at the South-West coast of Iceland. Specifically on the island of Heimaey, which is with a moderate 13,4 km² the largest island of the group and the only island that is permanently populated with little over 4.500 inhabitants. This island is volcanic and actually houses a volcano. The last eruption was in January 1973, this was unexpected as the volcano "Eldfell" was not thought to be active at that time.The island lost 400 houses that day and gained 2.24 km² of land after a six month long battle including locals and the U.S. Army that was stationed in Reykjavik to keep the lava from engulfing the harbor. The harbor is the main source of income of the town and is considered by many as the country's most important fishing port. It is actually thanks to the fishermen that people could escape the island during the night of the eruption. Most people in town work or are affiliated with the harbor and the factories that run there. Heimaey has a pretty stable flow of tourism from both people within Iceland and tourists from other countries. There is an airport located on the island, but this airport has been out of use since 2010 due to local conflict. Therefore the only way for both tourism and import is by boat, ship or other water craft. The only passage for such crafts is through Klettsvik bay.
Above: a view on the Westman Islands from my plane with Heimaey in the center. Klettsvik bay in blue, the harbor in red, the green dot indicates the volcanic mount Eldfell and the orange arrow indicates the passage which is the only way to the island, which you can see goes straight through Klettsvik bay. As you can see the island is very small and remote.
Klettsvik Bay - Sanctuary Location
Kletssvik, Kletsavík or Klettsvik bay is located right next to the harbor in an inlet that is the only passage in and out of the island. This particular bay was used to house Keiko, the infamous orca that played a role in the “Free Willy” movies. An attempt was made to rehabilitate the animal, using the bay as a temporary home. The new Sanctuary project of the charity “ SEALIFE Trust”, part of corporation “Merlin Entertainments” is in fact similar to the way they used to house Keiko. They will house two beluga whales or "white whales" (Delphinapterus leucas) at the bay in an attempt to give them a more natural living space. Their goal is to take the results of this program as an evaluation and possible blueprint for rehabilitating captive cetaceans in the future. Note that the animals will not swim freely in the entire bay; a smaller portion of the inlet is installed with a sea pen construction made of nets, pontoons and floater devices. Within these nets are platforms and smaller constructions that will function as medical and separation pools. The animals will not in fact swim freely at any time in the bay - as many people seem to think, but remain behind the nets and in these compartments set up for them. Above: The promotional picture provided by SEALIFE on the left. This might give the impression the belugas will inhabit the entire bay, this is not true. Middle and right show two scenic pictures I took of the bay. If you look closely you can see the nets and floater devices that mark the area of the bay that will be inhabited by the belugas.
What was interesting to me was that the bay is not as remote as I first thought when being presented with the images on the internet. The bay is actually quite close to the harbor and is right in an inlet that is the only passage to the island. The ferry actually goes through the bay right past the sanctuary. There is a lot of boat traffic, industrial development and tourism around the bay, of which I wonder if these factors are not harmful to the animals. SEALIFE mentions the risks and hazards for wild beluga whales on a sign in their center and these include: "Noise pollution", "Vessel traffic" and "Industrial development". All which seem present very near the sanctuary location. Note that later in this article there is a direct answer from SEALIFE regarding some of these factors. When you take the picture closer to edge of the higher viewpoint an (operative) rock quarry is reveiled.
Below is an overview of the area where the belugas will live. This area of the bay is 32.000 m2 and 10 meters deep at the deepest point. The enclosure is of a "sea penn" construction using nets and floaters. There are actually dolphinaria who use similar constructions. Pontoons break the surface to protect the area and break the larger waves. The nets are designed in a way that fish, crustaceans and other animals living in the bay can swim through so that the belugas can interact with the local wildlife. Within the area is a small enclosed enclosure which will function as a desentisation pool and medpool. The animals will spend the first period after the move in this smaller enclosure. Platforms are present for the staff and to dock the boats of the staff. This was very shortly before the move, so everything you see here is ready for the animals to be moved in. In fact they should have already been in there. According to schedule they should have moved to the bay in the spring of 2020. This however got delayed several times. Causes that were mentioned are the ongoing pandemic as well as a minor infection in both animals. The ongoing delays raised questions among many people.
Above: pictures taken from land for an overview and a sense of scale. Below: I actually took a trip by small watercraft to the bay. The last three pictures are taken in close proximity of the sanctuary from the watercraft. Note that the water is actually very still in the bay.
Proximity to the harbor
The sanctuary area is actually very close to the harbor. From several viewpoints on the island you can see both the harbor and the sanctuary bay in one gaze.The sanctuaries floating devices are also visible from the harbor. Near the bay is a touristic staple: the Heimaey stave church. The harbor consists of fishing boats in numerous sizes and a couple of factories. These factories run throughout the day. This has caused concern among many people regarding the animals. What about the boat traffic in and out of the harbor? Will the noise pollution of both the boat traffic and the industrial setting of the harbor not disturb the animals? What if there is an industrual accident in the harbor like an oil leak or an explosion? This is far more likely than on a remote location. Is there any waste coming from the factories through water or air, what about the continuous labor going on there? I admit that when hiking around the area I had similar questions. The proximity to the harbor is in fact very close. I would also to point out that every hour there was a loud bang, very similar to the sound of a loud canon shot or fireworks coming from the harbor. I later learned from a local that this is a tactic to scare the gulls away from the fish processing factories at the harbor. I was not able to confirm this, but the gulls indeed all flew up and fled after these shots so it seems likely that this is the case. It was very loud and I am sure you can hear this at the bay as well. I do not know if it would be audible underwater, but it seemed worth mentioning given the loudness of this “shot”. The harbor as seen from the "HáHá plateau" around the corner is the sanctuary bay, marked in red on the last photo.
Above: On the first picture you see the touristic staple named Heimaey stave church with the sanctuary on the background. On the second picture you see the floaters of the sanctuary from the far end of the harbor. Note the red marker. In the last picture you see the same marker point as seen from the Heimaey stave church area.
Panoramic photo: Harbor in red, Sanctuary in blue, Rock quarry in green.
I actually climbed the volcanic mount Eldfell which is several hundreds meters high to take pictures of the bay from several heights. (The location of Eldfell can be seen on one of the first photos in this article indicated by the green dot). In all these pictures you can see the sanctuary and the harbor in one single overview. This way you get a better idea of the proximity. Below are pictures taken from several heights, showing another perspective of proximity of the harbor and the sanctuary.
As mentioned before the only way to the island of Heimaey is through the inlet that includes Klettsvik bay and the sanctuary. The ferry passes by 14 times a day (7 trips to the islands and back). This starts early in the morning at 07:00. The last ferry leaves the mainland for Heimaey at 23:45. So it travels continuously throughout the bay. The ferry that travels from the mainland to Heimaey is called the Herólfjur 2941 and is a 68,86 meter long hybrid (semi-electric) ferry cruiser built in 2019. It passes the bay 14 times a day at its peak season. A trip from the mainland to Heimaey takes about 35 to 40 minutes. This ship travels with quite some speed, but slows down when entering the inlet and bay. I took this ferry to the island and back to the mainland. It travels in close proximity to the sanctuary and you actually get a very clear view if you stand on the outdoor decks. There are limited spaces and I heard at the booking office that trips are commonly sold out during the summertime; therefore they often increase the number of trips to more than 14 times a day.
The ferry Herólfjur 2941 during one of the many trips of the day transporting tourists to the island and locals back home. You can see it comes right past the sanctuary. Note that you could hear it from several hundreds of meters away and on top of a mountain.
I also witnessed the cruiseliner “Le Bellot” entering the inlet. One of many boat traffic scenes I witnessed within just a few hours. The cruiseliner was zooming right past the sanctuary. This ship was also very audible from several hundreds of meters away and was not electric. In fact it made a lot of noise.
There was also lots of small boat traffic near the sanctuary. These actually come in an even much closer proximity than the big ships and boats. There are several boat tour companies located in the harbor. I counted at least three. One of them named Ribsafari offers tours to the sanctuary. This is also the company that will offer boat tours once the belugas are there.
I spent many hours with the sanctuary in my vision and there was in fact a lot of boat traffic. Which is not weird as the bay is the only way to and from the island. The proximity of these boats and other water crafts to the sanctuary is remarkable and I could certainly understand the concerns of people.
Below you see the building that houses the SEALIFE Trust visitor center. Note that SEALIFE only operates on the ground floor. They share a building with a conference and information centre on the other floors. The top floors are apartments. This building is a former fish factory and is located directly at the harbor. They built a separate construction attached to this facility where the belugas are housed. Next to the building construction work was going on at the time of my visit. The center lies at a very optimal location regarding tourism as you stumble upon the center almost right after you leave the ferry. It was to me a bit surprising to find the centre in a building like this as it looks like a regular factory or apartment building. You would not expect there to be an aquarium and let alone a bird rescue center and cetacean tank system to be housed in a building like this. When SEALIFE settled on the island they took over the old collection of aquarium fish from the “Heimaey Museum and Aquarium” and also took over the bird rescue operation. The Heimaey Museum is still operational just a few hundreds of meters further into the town, but no longer has live animals. The fish and birds all moved to the new SEALIFE building. This is why SEALIFE Trust visitor centre and the local Heimaey museum are still confused with each other a lot. Especially on the internet on websites such as tripadvisor and tourism websites about the island. Note that at the old location at the Heimaey aquarium you were able to pay money to pet the rescue animals, at SEALIFE you are currently not.
The white building was added to the existing building to house the belugas. Within this white building is their quarantine/care pool which is where the animals were located at the time of my visit. A view from the harbor on the back of the building shows both the visitor center area and the building housing the belugas. When I took a better view on the beluga facility I noticed that a part of a filtration system was just sitting open on the street.
As you can see this filtration equipment is accessible by anybody. I am not sure if this was operational at that moment, but it was filled with water and humming for sure. Note that I had full access to it and that if I or anyone else wanted to manipulate/tamper with this, there was nothing and nobody holding you back. This seemed abnormal for me.
The Visitor Center is very small. If you would walk the route without stopping at the exhibits and information signs you would probably be outside again in 5 minutes. You start at the entrance hall which has the counter in the front end of the room where you pay your ticket and at the back of the room a moderate gift shop. This gift shop is also where you return when the route is over. Once you paid you enter through a hall and you come to the first exhibit. Through a window you see the rescued local birds both above and underwater. As mentioned before SEALIFE took over the bird rescue from the old aquarium. Puffins and Guillemots are displayed. These are permanent rehab birds. Following through the hall you enter the next room where you can see some more of the bird rescue department. You follow the route into the next area where about 7 aquaria are displayed with local fish. These fish mostly originated from the old aquarium location as well. The aquariums vary in size from tiny to a fairly large tank with cods and wolf fish. Information about the animals is present. Note that even when you stand still at all the tanks and take some photos, it takes you just a few minutes to pass all these aquaria. After the aquarium area the exhibition about the belugas starts.
When you enter the beluga exhibition you walk through two rooms which practically tell the story of the animals. Starting in China all the way to the plan to house them in the sanctuary. This consists mostly of informative signs and pictures. There also is a projector screen that shows two computer-generated belugas swimming in what is supposed to be the bay. The screen displays the words “Home to the Ocean” which might cause the confusion they are planning to release the animals and is conflicting with a sign in the same room saying they do not plan to fully release the animals. Many captions like “Wild dreams” and “Former captive whales” give the impression they are releasing them but other terms and signs conflict this. This seemed to be a bit confusing.
Some notable signs that provide information during the exhibition about the project. These rooms consist mainly of signs and photos on the wall. Note below that they mention noise pollution, noise from vessel traffic and industrial development being harmful to the animals. Though it is likely these factors are also very present at their new enclosure.
The end and absolute highlight of the tour is a small, single window through which you can see the two belugas. This window is labeled: “Animal Welfare Assessment Window”. A donation pot sits right next to it. This is the only opportunity for visitors to see the animals. Taking photos and touching the glass is prohibited. The belugas seemed very curious and were very interactive with the visitors. The window was also a huge success among visitors; they flocked in front of this window to see the animals. After this, you walk a hallway and go through a door, where you then realize you are back the gift shop and the tour is over. It is a very short route overall, even if you read all the signs.
The animals appeared to be in good condition, as far as I can judge that. I’m of course no veterinarian. My opinion based on my observation is that the animals were active and alert and did not look abnormal, though the animals were very very large. On social media SEALIFE Trust declared they are focusing on increasing the animals weight and fat count to prepare them for the bay, this was very visible in my opinion. The skin of the animals looked normal and no wounds or abnormal count of rakemarks were visible. This is apart from Little Grey’s mouth, which has scarring and cuts on one end of the ‘lips’. Though judging by the photos provided at the exhibition this was already the case in China, but the cuts have increased since then. The animals were very curious and interactive towards visitors, especially kids. They were very easily coaxed to interact through the glass window. They came interacting very easily and seemed very people-focused. I spent about 4 hours in total during the two days at this window to observe the animals. They are very focused on humans, both towards their direct caretakers and visitors. You could see the belugas had access to two more pools, but they chose to stay at the window area continuously. Every so often they would both spyhop for long periods of time at the same spot of the pool. Later my conclusion was this is the spot where they see staff members present in the room. They were very fixated whenever something happened above the surface. The animals barely interacted with each other. They mostly swam routine rounds through the tank and stopped multiple times at the window to observe the visitors. They also rubbed their body against the window when they passed it every time.
Left: "Little White" Right: "Little Grey"
It is notable that during the hours I observed these animals enrichment was presented in the pool several times. The animals only interacted with this enrichment for a few second or not at all, while they kept returning to the window and actively sought interaction with the public. This gave me the impression the animals were more enriched by the presence of the visitors than the actual toys offered to them in their enclosure. I also have to point out the animals barely interacted with each other, other than pushing each other away for a better view at the window.
Behind the Scenes
I managed to get some photos of the animals in their quarantine/care pool. Note that as a visitor you only see the animals through glass. That goes for the birds, the fish and the whales. So you never see them directly, only through a glass barrier. There is no program or other way to see and touch the animals. In fact, everything was very strict and clinical. There is some confusion on the internet of paying to touch the animals but lies back when the rescue birds and fish were still at the old Heimaey aquarium. Here you could book a VIP (Very Important Puffin) program and actually touch the rescued puffins and other seabirds. This program however was already discontinued in the old building, as all the petting of the tourists damaged the protective layer on the bird’s feathers. The center actually displayed the animals as any other rescue center I have visited. Note that Little Grey is the most outgoing of the two also clearly in these pictures.
Questions answered by SEALIFE
I managed to talk to several of the caretakers at the facility and also the General Manager of the facility (Audrey Padgett) and I was able to get an answer on most of my questions regarding the project. This was very interesting! The following is a report of this interview:
Could you tell us a bit about your project and goal?
SEALIFE Trust Beluga Sanctuary is the first beluga sanctuary in the world. Our goal is creating a more natural habitat for former captive belugas. Our current animals will be the first inhabitants of our long term sanctuary that will be able to house up to 10 belugas at a time. This project is the first of its kind and we are open to set an example and share our information with other facilities that house cetaceans. Our goal is to give them the most natural living habitat possible. This project is an open invitation to other facilities and organizations that are looking to start a similar project.
Our first two beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White came from an aquarium in China named Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai. Here the animals were used for shows. This facility was purchased by Merlin Entertainments in 2012, since we have a policy against keeping marine mammals for entertainment purposes a new home had to be found for the (then three) beluga whales. Rehoming them to another facility would not have improved the situation of the animals. This is how the plan was set in motion. Together with our partner charity SEALIFE trust, which at the time were already affiliated with the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in the UK and together with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC ) this project was conceived.
We have been planning and preparing this project for many years with a large team of professionals. Including Director of Merlin Entertainment's Animal and Welfare Department Rob Hicks and Andy Bool, Head of the Sea Life Trust. We recruited people who have a lot of knowledge and together we coordinated this project on which we have been working on for over 7 years now.
Our hope is also to create a blueprint for other facilities to improve the quality of life for cetaceans in other captive situations. In that aspect Little Grey and Little White are ambassadors.
This is a very innovative and modern approach to keeping marine mammals but also a pretty controversial subject. Did you get any negative reactions on your project?
Yes of course, because it is about animals it is already such an emotional conversation. Although I personally have only been on this project for little more than a year, I have already seen a change in viewpoint, even for people from other facilities. I believe our willingness to bring this to the table is the right way to bring this very loaded subject to the world.
We want to make clear it is about the animals. We want to help the animals and give them the best quality of life possible and we want to keep educating about welfare and conservation points. It is also about the way you bring this conversation. Not yell at each other, but talk normally and respect each other’s opinions.
With SEALLIFE Trust we have a passionate team who cares about animals. Not about right or wrong but about the health of the animals. We have Dr. Isabella Clegg who is conducting research about welfare of Little White and Little Grey. We are also measuring cortisol, we take saliva, blood and skin samples of the animals for this. We are also open to other research and want to be as transparent as possible.
Why was Iceland and this specific location chosen?
There were a lot of possible locations. It was a big process of elimination before we came to this location. We for example also looked at Russia. There were so many factors we needed to take in account. Where is a place with suitable water temperature, with the right climate, which location is not too remote and harsh regarding weather conditions/environment etc? We were also looking for a location where the local community would be understanding and embrace our project. Regarding this location; the orca Keiko was here before and the town was involved with that project so this wasn’t an alien concept to them. They understood the rough idea and many people actually wanted to work with us. We are very happy with this location because this island has a great history of animal conservation here regarding the rescue of puffins and other seabirds. This area is also remote but still accessible enough for education to the public and people to be connected to the project. We receive many visitors here who learn at our facility just how intelligent the whales actually are. Even local fishermen would say they can now see how aware these animals are and that they are not just “some dumb fish” as previously thought.
Can you tell us a bit about the animals and their character?
Little Grey is more outgoing for sure. She is the first one to come and greet the care team, more vocal, first volunteer for new enrichment and more playful. Little White is a bit more introverted and reserved. Little White became more comfortable in this environment, but she is still a bit shy and hangs back a little. She is comfortable with watching things from a distance at first, especially with new people until they earned their credibility with her.
Because they spend so much time together, Little Grey also became a bit of a role model. They copy each other sometimes in behavior as well; sometimes Little White is the first at the training. It really depends on mood, but they both have their own character.
What kind of training program do the animals have now?
This essentially breaks into three stages:
- Husbandry and healthcare/medical training. Like taking blood and saliva samples but also for example ultrasounds to measure their blubber. They slowly went down from 15 degree water to 8 degrees to prepare them for the move, so their blubber had to be increased.
- “Training” related to the move and their desensitization. The medical pool has lifting floor, for example, we make sure they are used to this. The same goes for the transport stretchers. We also find it important they have a free choice to swim in and out of the medpool, so they get comfortable with being in that area. I would not really call it training however. Of course this desensitization is intermixed with behaviors they are comfortable with (which for them means back when they were trained for shows). Also these sessions working with caretakers helps them being more comfortable with new people, which is important in preparation for the move.
- Enrichment. Like mental stimulation puzzles. They will still need enrichment when they are in the sanctuary. We also show them a lot of novel things, like seaweed, buoys etc. this is a bridge to what they will experience in the sanctuary.
Their daily routine however is mainly lots of husbandry training. The animal assessment window is also enrichment for them; they did not have anything like that at their old facility. The window is environmental enrichment, they seem attracted to children. Possibly because they have brighter clothing and make faster movements, but they do seem very interested in all the visitors.
We also present them things like a feeding ball, this is not the same as hunting, but they are challenged mentally to think about how to get the food. With all this enrichment we hope to learn them how to use their brains and bodies to explore the bay. Jessica, our beluga curator who worked at Shedd Aquarium before is also monitoring how giving the animals choice affects them, this an interesting study.
Is there a prevision that once the animals get transferred to the sanctuary they will continue to receive some kind of training? With Exercises, medical training etc.?
We have done some exercise training already to prepare them for living in a tidal environment. We have already adapted their diet and aimed to give them a little more blubber, but it is not just gaining weight, it is having the optimal body condition to live in this natural environment.
At the bay there are 2 care pools, one square and the other L shaped. This is where they will spend their first period in the sanctuary to get used to the new living conditions. We also have started and will continue boat training, in which the animals are motivated to follow the care team in a boat. This way we can encourage them to explore the entire bay area as well.
Will the animals eventually have no training anymore and swim free without contact?
That is not the goal of this project. These animals have lived for so long in captivity that they will need care for the rest of their lives. Beluga’s can live until 40’s that is a long time. We never intended to release the animals or let them fully go wild. Belugas are not native in these waters at all so it would not be optimal to release them either. The goal is to give them the most natural life possible and learn from this experience to help other cetaceans in the future.
Does the current staff have experience with marine mammals and/or training? How did you find the right staff for such a project like this?
Yes, two staff members came from China, where they have worked with Little Grey and Little White before. One of them has worked with the animals for over 10 years actually. Their philosophy is amazing and to talk with them about the difference in experiences at the two facilities is very interesting. We also have people from Iceland and actually all over the world. Many have experience with marine mammals and/or other animals. Our curator Jessica has over 20 years of experience with belugas!
What makes the team so special is that they all came from different places with different reasons, but they all have one goal; to help the animals. Maybe people can be skeptical about our project in the beginning, but we really are motivated to help these animals and you can feel the essence of that. We are currently hiring and hope to expand the team even more in the future.
Do you have your own vet for the animals at the facility? Did a vet or caretakers travel with the whales from China?
We work with two vets on the mainland. They can take the ferry when the animals need medical attention. We also work with the International Zoo Veterinary Group, who work directly with Merlin Entertainments. They also provide training and share knowledge with the Icelandic vets. Two of the vets at the IZVG have actually been working in China with beluga whales. We will make sure the vets are present when the animals move. Even though it is a short move it is very challenging to restructure such large animals and we will do so with caution.
Your goal is to give the animals the most natural living conditions possible. Will they eventually swim free or will they always remain in the bay?
These animals were captured off coast of Russia, and were estimated to be less than a year old at that time. They were in a research facility before going to Changfeng Ocean World. They have been in captivity for 11 years; they simply don’t have the skills to fend for themselves. Like said before, this is also not the goal of this project. We humans took them out of their natural environment; our responsibility now is to care for them, that’s why we are here. Our goal is to give them the best quality of life possible and give them the most natural living conditions as possible. It is also learning process. Will they start catching fish by themselves? We do not know yet. We hope to learn from this process and hopefully it is of use to rehabilitate cetaceans in the future.
I grew up in Florida visiting dolphin shows at Seaworld and Marineland. The evolution of people’s opinions on captive marine mammals changed so much. Back then it served a purpose; this was the way to show people and teach people about these animals. Now we can do it another way. This is why we do research and want to be open to share these results.
We also aim to do a lot of education. We are planning school programs. Education for kids is so beautiful and raises so much awareness for these animals. Even when the belugas are in the sanctuary we plan to do take school groups on boat trips as education to learn about the belugas.
How large is their new home? What maximum depth do the nets reach?
32000m2 and the bay varies in depth but the deepest point is 10 meters. We had professional divers checking the premises and staff doing snorkeling to observe the bay. We have seen a lot of wildlife there already; urchins, crabs, lumpsucker fish, small cods, even a flatfish! lots of creatures out there to interact with. The terrain changes a lot from rocks, to sand and other textures, so there is lots to explore for the animals!
Do the nets need maintenance? Is there any protocol for it?
We are working with a local external contractor for the maintenance of the nets. He worked on the nets of Keiko as well so he is familiar with this kind of project. He has very professional equipment. He will do a weekly check up on the nets and the staff will do a daily check-up. The nets are double-layered as well.
Is it possible to visit the belugas in the bay? Is it possible to see them up close or just from far away?
Yes we will be offering educational boat trips via Ribsafari. There will be one of our staff on these boats to educate the public. You will see the belugas, but from far away, a bit like a whale watching tour. It’s new for all of us too, so we will see how it evolves. Getting feedback from the tourists on what would improve the tours is also helpful.
How many staff will be working in maintenance and care of the animals at the bay?
Apart from the external contractor for the nets, our staff will be a care team of 6 dedicated employees looking after the belugas.
What happens when a beluga would accidentally escape from the bay?
This is very unlikely because of the double-netting and the fact that belugas do not like to jump over things. We however have a protocol for this. We have done everything we can and are continuously optimizing. If an animal does end up outside the bay we trained the animals with a recall bridge. They are trained to respond to an acoustic ringer. They of course also have the boat training so they will probably follow the caretakers in the boats as well. We also have CCTV around the bay with a 24 hour watch. We want them to feel safe and comfortable. Not to swim over buoys when they get spooked. We also want to prevent private boat owners to approach the bay.
What happens when a beluga gets sick/hurt or there is an industrial accident in the harbor nearby? Can the belugas be moved back to a safe place in case of an emergency?
We have a protocol to move the animals back to their carepool in case of an emergency. As well as being their quarantine facility at the beginning of their journey it is also an emergency facility. One of the pens at the bay has a rising floor so if an animal needs to be brought back we can transport them back to the carepool. We have protocols for everything such as an accident at the harbor and the scenario in which we might not be able to feed them for more than 24 hours due to for example very rough winter weather.
There are so many things that could happen. If something happens we could call the right people, we have a lot of people at this area who are willing to help us and support our goal. We are very reassured in having the right people at our side.
Why was the move delayed due to a minor infection? What will happen when the animals have a health problem in the sanctuary?
They had both had gastritis. This is an inflammation of the lining of the stomach. It was of a bacterial source. We do not know the exact reason; it could have been something they ate even though there are many quality checks on their diet. To get them used to the more local diet they are now getting a mix of Icelandic herring, Canadian caplin and other local fish.
It was only a minor infection, but we did not want to risk it. We did not want to move the animals in a less than optimal health condition. It would also be bad to interrupt their antibiotics for any reason. The treatment for this infection has now finished and we are waiting for a clear from our vets. We will keep doing medical checks even at the bay. We are comfortable that we can treat them once in bay due to our good husbandry training. Maintaining trust and a good relationship between the animals and the caretakers has been a main goal.
Are the animals not bothered by the boat traffic to and from the harbor? Is there a way to prepare them/get them used to it?
We are working in cooperation with the harbor. The fishermen and other boat operating people like for example the boat touring companies are all aware of our project. We have made an agreement about the speed and the proximity in which they approach the bay. Luckily they are all very cooperative. The big advantage is that everybody knows everybody here. The boats use two types of sonar: sonar directly to the bottom and widespread sonar to locate schools of fish. We made an agreement they turn of this sonar when they approach the bay area/harbor.
The Ferry passes close by but it only needs to be going 5 mph ( 8 km/h) when entering the bay. Our staff has been out there diving and doing maintenance at the bay and the noise is actually not as bad. The ferry is an electric ferry, so that helps a lot in reducing noise.
We have also been playing sounds at the carepool, both above and underwater to get the animals used to noise. Keep in mind staff will need to go out there on boats as well, so they are getting boat training. It is part of their desensitization.
This must be a very costly project, do you run on donations and visitors only or do you have sponsors?
We are completely non-profit. We rely on donations and sponsors. The biggest donation was of course by Merlin. We are hoping to get more sponsors in future. All of revenue (admission fee, souvenirs) goes right back into paying staff and feeding animals. This year has been challenging, but this is something that is going to grow and evolve. We hope to gain more partnerships, sponsoring and donations in the future.
What does the near future hold for Little Grey and little White?
We have finished the treatment of their minor infection. They are moving in the very near future. We are now in the process of reorganizing everything, contacting people and wait for the clearance of the vets that the infection is gone. We will do every check-up and protocol again before the move. We are also making sure all human health and safety of the staff is in-check. It’s an amazing opportunity to be working with these animals and it truly is a community effort!
This was a very interesting report to make. This project sure is one of a kind. When I first heard of this I was very interested and had a lot of question about the execution of the program. Most of these questions are answered now. Many people were negative about this project, both in the zoological field as in the activist community. Calling this program "Greenwashing" and threathening for other facilities and projects. What I learned after talking to the staff and the manager is that these people do care very much for the animals and want the very best for them. She herself was taking out blood samples of the animals to the main land by ferry on my first day there. They actually have accounted for some scenarios and have more protocols than previously thought. They admit themselves that this will be a learning process. There seems to be a contrast between how Merlin represents this project and the actual people that are behind this project/involved with the animal care. I think it was good I went there and spoke with some of the team.
However.. the ‘marketing’ for lack of a better word of this project is not very subtle. In many ways it claims to be the solution and end to captivity and dolphin shows, which I can imagine and know for a fact is not very well received by other zoological facilities who keep cetaceans. On the other hand they promote showing the animals to the public and educating them about the animals by displaying them (and also making money by displaying the animals) which is exactly what a modern zoo/dolphinarium does. Pretty confusing and conflicting to me. I was also surprised to find that it was not as commercial as we thought. Yes, of course they do ask for donations. There is a not so subtle donation pot next to the animals and a sign at the end also asks you to donate. However the centre is very strict, plain and clinical. It reminded me a lot of other rescue and rehabilitation centers actually (who also have a gift shop and ask for donations). There is no case of “pet our animals for money"(there will be the boat trips though), but they ask for funds in pretty much the same way as another rescue center/animal park would do. There was also a lot of education, though mainly about their own project, also a bit about belugas in general and the local fish and other sealife.
I personally think that they are very right about them being able to learn a lot from this project. Especially now I learned they measure cortisol and have so many experienced people on the team. I also believe we could use the results to increase the living condition of cetaceans in the future. It is very good for zoos to improve habitats and wanting to keep going more natural, in which I agree with SEALIFE. However.. I wish they would not put it in such an ‘anti-captivity’ vibe. You get a very “what we do is the right way and what other facilities do is the wrong way” vibe from the signs at the center. The belugas actually moved to the sanctuary within a week after my visit. Where Audrey says in my interview: "We want to be transparent and it is the way you bring this subject to the table. You have to be respectful of eachother's opinion" the headlines of the move read: "Freed from captivity!!!!" - this is a totally different vibe. I was also surprised they plan to house up to 10 belugas in that bay and I am very curious how this project will play out in the future. I still have my doubts about some factors like the boat traffic and I want to do a follow-up when the belugas have spent some time in the bay. It would be interesting to learn how this new environment affects the animals and if this project actually works and is beneficial for the animals.