a Future for Belugas? Oceanogràfic València
The beluga or white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is an Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean. With its large size, unique shape and striking white color it is one of the more recognizable cetaceans of the more than 90 species that inhabit this planet. They can grow up to 5 meters in length and as they are adapted to living in the arctic waters they have a very distinctive appearance; a particularly round and smooth body with no protruding limbs (such as a dorsal fin or beak) and a large, bulbous head. The beluga is also known as the "sea canary" as it has a large vocabulary of high-pitched squeaks, squeals, clicks, and whistles. They can even try to imitate other sounds such as the human voice. They are closely related and similarly built to the narwhal, which is the only other species within the genus Monodontidae besides the beluga. These two species have been observed swimming and socializing together. Furthermore a skull has been discovered with characteristics of both the beluga and the narwhal, supporting the hypothesis that hybridization is possible between these two species. Because the beluga is so recognizable and has such an endearing appearance it is very popular among many people, though this has not always been the case. It is well known that several native people and tribes have hunted belugas for many centuries, but they were also vigorously hunted by non-natives during the 19th century and part of the 20th century. Belugas have been easy prey for hunters due to their predictable migration patterns and the high population density when the animals gather in big numbers during the summer. Commercial whaling by European, American and Russian whalers during the 18th and 19th centuries decreased beluga populations in the Arctic drastically. The animals were hunted for their meat and blubber and their oil was used as a lubricant for clocks, machinery and lighting in lighthouses. Even up to the early 20th century beluga leather was still used to make horse harnesses, machine belts for saw mills and even shoelaces. Beluga leather was even used to manufacture some of the first bulletproof vests. Today the beluga is loved by many all over the world and few would wish harm upon the animal. As these animals live mainly in Arctic waters (making seeing a beluga in the wild quite rare or impossible for many people), aquariums and dolphinariums have played a big part in the popularity of the beluga today
Image: In the 1800's belugas were a huge novelty among the public. Seeing one alive was a rarity and putting animals on display attracted huge crowds of people.
Belugas were the first cetacean to be purposefully captured and displayed in captivity. In 1861 three animals were collected by the Boston Aquarial Gardens, an aquarium in Boston USA. The animals were very popular and attracted a huge crowd of people. Not long after this the infamous showman Phineas Taylor Barnum also became interested in these “White whales” He bought two of the three animals from the Boston Aquarial Gardens and put them on display at his museum. These belugas sadly did not last very long. In the following years P.T. Barnum would issue a great number of beluga captures for his museum. Because of the lack of knowledge and primitive care in the 19th century many of these animals passed away shortly after their arrival. In 1877 several operators of Coney Island New York, (known for their large array of attractions and displays of rarities for amusement) also caught a large number of belugas. Around the same time several English aquariums started to show interest in keeping the species as well. Until the end of the 19th century many facilities kept belugas such as the aquarium of Westminster, Manchester and Brighton. On all these mentioned locations belugas often were treated more as an attraction or novelty rather than an animal species on display. The short lifespan of these captive animals as well as the large purchase price of getting new specimens meant that many facilities stopped keeping belugas and a long hiatus appeared in the keeping of the species. Only in the 1960’s would belugas start to appear in captivity again. This time in the more modern way of animal keeping as we know it today.
Captive Belugas Today
We have come a long way since the 1800’s and today, belugas are one of the most commonly kept cetaceans in captivity and are housed in aquariums, dolphinariums and other zoological facilities in North America, Europe, Russia and Asia. With the largest number of these captive animals living in Russia and Asia (with an estimated number between 100 to 200 animals, but possibly even more) and about 85 animals living in Western facilities spanning North America, Canada and the European Union. These animals live in several different set-ups. Some are ‘classica dolphinariums where the animals are also displayed in shows or presentations. Others live in an aquarium or zoo, where the animals are just on public display. In both occasions the animals are however trained for both medical and enrichment purposes. Since 2019 a facility in Iceland introduced another possible set-up called a “sanctuary”. Here the animals still live in captivity, but the habitat is made as natural as possible. The goal behind these sanctuaries being to ‘retire’ animals that used to live in dolphinariums to a more natural way of living where they do not have to perform in shows. This vision comes forth out of the public opinion that keeping cetaceans in captivity and especially having them perform in shows or presentations is outdated or even animal cruelty. Though there have always been opponents of keeping cetaceans in captivity, this is ideology has mainly become more popular over the last decade.
Image: Left: a promotional image of a beluga show in “Boston Aquarial Gardens” from 1861. This is where the first captive belugas were kept. Right: a drawing from the diary of an 11-year old girl who visited one of these shows on a school trip. She writes: “I went to the Boston Aquarial Gardens again. We saw the whale driven by a girl. She was in a boat and the whale was fastened to the boat by a pair of reins and a collar who was fastened around its neck. The men had to chase him before they could put on the collar"..
SEALIFE Trust beluga whale sanctuary
I have visited the facility in Iceland called the “SEALIFE Trust beluga whale sanctuary” in 2020 and wrote a separate article on my findings and interview there. I recommend reading this article as well to be fully op to terms with the subject. But I will give a short introduction to this facility here as well: The more well known names in the animal activist world have all mentioned these sanctuaries before as a better alternative for the current keeping of cetaceans in zoological facilities. 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). Therefore it was all the more surprising that it was Merlin Entertainments, a major player in the theme park and aquarium industry that launched the first serious attempt to such a sanctuary, meant specifically for belugas. In 2019 SEALIFE Trust moved two beluga whales from a Chinese marine park, bought by Merlin Entertainments 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 back to the wild. This project is still in progress during the writing of this article and the animals remain in an indoor pool awaiting their introduction.
As I did research for my article about the beluga whales in Iceland I came to a remarkable conclusion: While belugas are one of the most widely kept species of cetacean in captivity next to the bottlenose dolphin, there are only two facilities in Europe who keep these species (excluding Russia and Crimea). This being the SEALIFE Trust Beluga Sanctuary and a facility called Oceanogràfic Valéncia in Spain. This sparked my interest immediately as not only did Oceanogràfic keep belugas as a species, but they also had the first successful beluga birth in Europe. An idea came up in my head to visit both facilities and compare their way of housing the animals, animal care, enrichment and vision on the future of these species in captivity and as a whole. Since this was right in the period of the pandemic it took a while to realize a visit to both facilities, but I have finally managed to do so.
What is Oceanogràfic?
Oceanogràfic is a public aquarium situated in the city of Valencia, Spain. It is part of the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències otherwise known as the City of Arts and Sciences. It was opened on February 13th, 2003 and is known as the largest aquarium complex of Europe. The aquarium houses more than 20.000 animals of about 600 different species such as: dolphins, belugas, sea lions, seals, penguins, sea turtles, sharks, rays and many different birds, fish, crustaceans and other aquatic creatures. Among education by using the many animals on display in the park, Oceanogràfic also rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles and has many initiatives of conservation and protection of wild animals, especially local and native species to Spain.
The facility has been housing belugas since 2003, when two animals (one male and one female) arrived from the Mar del Plata aquarium in Argentina. These belugas are housed in “Ártico” a giant igloo, twelve meters tall, divided into two levels, which represents the ecosystem in which the beluga and many other animal species are found. Here the animals live in 4 million liters of seawater. Currently two belugas live in this enclosure which are Yulka, an adult female and her son Kylu who was born in 2016. Kylu’s father was a male named Kairo who originally arrived with Yulka, he sadly passed away in April 2022. Oceanogràfic houses three other marine mammal species: Harbor seals, Patagonian sea lions and bottlenose dolphins
The Oceanogràfic Foundation was created to reinforce and extend the work that Oceanogràfic carries out to protect the marine environment. The mission of the Oceanogràfic Foundation is to conserve the marine environment by generating knowledge through both direct action and the creation of experiences. Which then encourage respectful attitudes towards marine ecosystems in society as a whole. This foundation consist next to the trust out of a scientific committee and a team of scientific professionals that dedicate their life to conservation. Over the years they have carried out hundreds of initiatives to contribute to conservation and creating awareness among the public.
Image: “The Oceanogràfic Foundation in numbers” is an overview which is present in the park that takes visitors through the initiatives of just the year 2021. Of which: 644 rescued sea turtles (714 during my visit), 88 collaborating institutions, 17 degrees and master thesis, 151 scientific publications, 201 sea turtle releases with educational purposes, 95 conference contributions, 24 researchers, 15 doctored thesis, 121 studied species, 648 turtles participating in head-starting projects, 29 beach cleanups, 108 research and conservation projects, 582 animal necropsies for scientific purposes, 63 assisted live strandings, 127 awareness actions,
The next list is a compilation of some of the many projects and initiatives that I witnessed myself and learned about in the park. Many of the animal enclosures in the park itself consist of local animals that were either being rehabilitated or bred for scientific studies/release back into the wild. There were also enclosures where local birds could come and go; many choose to reside in the park permanently.
- Arca del Mar: This is a veterinary hospital centre that cares for the sick animals that reach the Spanish coasts. It opened in 2007 and offers veterinary healthcare, mainly to injured and beached turtles and marine mammals, but also animals such as sharks. Its objective is to provide them with treatment to allow their rehabilitation so they can be reintroduced to their habitat.
- Decompression sickness in sea turtles: In 2012 the Oceanogràfic team discovered that turtles were susceptible to Decompression Sickness (DCS) when trapped in fishing nets. This finding, greatly acknowledged internationally, is a research challenge as it undoes the scientific belief that marine animals cannot suffer DCS.
- Diving physiology: This project studies the effects of apnoea during diving on different aspects, such as metabolism, cardio respiratory function, and generally on animals’ health and welfare.
- Tracking dolphins in open water: Dolphins are considered a sentry species for the ecosystem’s health. Following them up and observing them not only provide in-depth knowledge about this species, but also allow us to evaluate the status of seas.
- Conserving the biodiversity of sea floors in the town of Jávea: This pilot project takes a new approach in the field of conserving sea floors by involving all the factors related with them: researchers, public administrations, local stakeholders and citizens.
- Breeding eels in captivity: The European eel is a species that is classified as being in critical danger of extinction. Nonetheless, its breeding in captivity is no simple task because it does not spontaneously reproduce. This project centers on developing techniques to allow it to be bred in captivity given its imminent risk of extinction, which also applies to other eel species.
- Head-starting sea turtles: Thanks to this conservation tool, the survival of sea turtle hatchlings, born on local beaches or incubated at Oceanogràfic, is ensured during the most critical period of their development.
- Restoration projects, cleaning beaches and seabeds: After identifying the points of interest, restoration tasks are carried out for different habitats with the help of volunteers. These tasks involve the elimination of waste and man-made waste, and the reforestation and reintroduction of native fauna in the area of inland waters and rivers, as well as coastal regions, in the Valencian Community.
- Recovery of accidentally captured elasmobranch eggs: Thanks to the collaboration with the fishing sector, viable shark eggs are rescued after being accidentally captured as part of discards of fishing vessels in the Valencian Community, which ensures the development of embryos until they have hatched and are released to the natural environment
- Breeding local endangered species in captivity: The Oceanogràfic Foundation, along with the Regional Ministry of Agriculture, the Environment, Climate Change and Rural Development, participates in projects for local endangered fauna, such as the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis), Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni), Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl) and the Valencia toothcarp (Valencia hispanica), to increase populations through the breeding and/or maintenance of hatchlings in the first months of life to ensure their survival. The specimens obtained in these projects are released to the natural environment, and other actions are taken, such as restoration of ponds and water points.
- Restoring important water points for amphibians and biodiversity: Water points are the enclave of numerous uncommon and generally endangered species, including plants, invertebrates and amphibians. The restoration and recovery of these microhabitats play a vital role in the conservation of populations of amphibians and other species. In this context, Oceanogràfic Foundation works to restore diverse water points, overcome the deficiencies observed thanks to the participation of local organizations and volunteers to ensure the permanency of actions.
- Breeding several fish species in captivity: Oceanogràfic breeds several different species of fish in captivity. This is done with the goal to exchange these animals with other aquariums and facilities all over the world. The purpose of these breeding programs is to prevent the capture of wild animals to stock public aquariums.
- Study about Interaction between dolphins and smaller fishing gear: Relevant studies are currently being conducted on the interactions between common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and trammel net fishing in local guilds in an attempt to coordinate coexistence with local fauna, in this case dolphins, with traditional trades so as to ensure the permanency of both.
- Banding flamingos: The foundation sends their researchers to the huge event of banding large flocks of young flamingos for scientific purposes. Any injured animal that is found will be taken to rehabilitation in the park. Some animals choose to remain in the park and therefore stay there in permanent rehabilitation.
- Communication with and education to local fishermen: By keeping active communication with local fishermen both awareness can be raised about the importance of conservation of local species and the fishermen can report any changes to the environment or the fauna, as well as call in animals that got stuck in netting or other fishing equipment.
- Sample database: Oceanogràfic keeps an active database of samples of the many species that reside in the facility. These samples can be used to aid research all over the world. They also keep a database of diseases and pathogens via the stranding network outside of the park which is equally important for research purposes.
Belugas at L'oceanogràfic València
Currently two belugas reside at Oceanogràfic. An adult female named Yulka and her son Kylu, which was born November 15, 2016. Until only recently there used to be three animals at the facility: Kylu’s father Kairo passed away on the morning of April 26th, 2022. He was estimated to be at least 60 years old. At that point he had spent nearly 20 years at Oceanogràfic. Yulka and Kylu are quite easy to tell apart; Though they are almost similar in size now, Kylu still has a darker coloration and gray markings on his body, particularly around his eyes. This is a remnant from when he was still a calf as belugas are born completely dark gray. In a young beluga, the external layer of the epidermis is very thick compared to the adult’s. The particular structure of the newborn’s skin is very unstable, causing a gradual molt to the pure white color. It takes several years until the animal is fully white, some animals even retain some gray dappled markings throughout their life. In behavior the animals are also different. Where Yulka is older and with more life experience, Kylu is sometimes little more laid-back and prefers to observe new things from a distance. Though Kylu also remains a bit more playful and curious, which are common traits for a young animal. Both animals can be viewed through an underwater panoramic window, but also from above through a layer of netting in their habitat: Ártico. I was able to also go behind the scenes to meet the team of trainers and caretakers as well as to meet and observe the animals from up close.
What was interesting to me when visiting the facility in Iceland and conducting an interview there was their vision: Words such as animal welfare, education, conservation and the right to exist as a facility were subjects that surfaced while talking about the animals. While these are of course amazing goals, it is practically the same ideology that modern zoological parks have today. And as I talked to the specialists in Oceanogràfic I got a lot of similar answers to the ones I got in Iceland. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Daniel García-Párraga,Director of Zoological Operations, Director and Coordinator of the Oceanogràfic Foundation’s Scientific Committee, Technical Veterinary Director and essential contributor of several research studies and initiatives. I submitted him to the following questions:
How many belugas do you have and how long have you been keeping this species?
“We have Yulka, the mother who arrived here in 2003 and Kylu, her offspring who was born in 2016. There was also Kylu’s father called Kairo who passed away recently. He was probably at least 60 years old. He was already called “the grandpa” in the facilities he previously lived while had been with us for almost 20 years already".
Where do your animals originate from?
"The male and female (Kairo and Yulka) arrived in 2003 from Argentina. They came from an aquarium called “Mar del Plata”. This facility was going through some difficult times during the recession. The previous operator of Oceanogràfic bought several animals of that aquarium and dispersed them around different facilities in Spain. This is when the belugas (I think they came to Argentina from Russia originally) and also some bottlenose dolphins arrived at Oceanogràfic".
What kind of specialized care do belugas need when compared to the other more widely kept cetacean species ( such as bottlenose dolphins?)
"Firstly the temperature of water and air is of course different. Belugas live in the arctic and subarctic water, where temperature and air humidity is very different. Nutritionally belugas have a quite variable diet including more cephalopods and they are also animals which are designed to have periods of fasting. This does not mean there are periods we do not feed the animals, but we have to take this into account in their dietary needs. It’s also very important for the trainers and caretakers to maintain a deep connection with the animals. To make sure they get a lot of attention and that the individual animal gets what it needs. By working closely and creating a bond with the animals the caretakers can notice immediately when something is off about their behavior".
How large is their enclosure? (in liters)
"4 million liters of living-space for the animals, plus some extra volume for the filtration area".
Do the belugas get any training or medical training? If so, what kinds?
"Yes of course. We take a blood sample at least once a month, along with other possible sampling such as a respiratory sample, urine sample, fecal sample etc. We can also perform an endoscopy, ultrasound and we have some other routine checkups. We can get all the results in-house, like for example the blood results which we usually have within one hour. We monitor the belugas a little more closely than for example the bottlenose dolphins as they are more specialist in care. We have a scale on our lifting platform, but we noticed that water coming in contact with the scale makes the result less accurate. With Kylu we used to able to weigh him outside the water as he grew (up to 400 about kg) but now with his current size it’s not possible. The method we use now is that we take dimensions of the total body length and circumference on 2 places of the body to calculate and determine weight, which is a reliable mathematical formula to determine weight. We also have enrichment training, medical training, research training, social bonding training and waterwork training. How many sessions the animals get can vary every day. It’s usually a minimum of 15 per day and the sessions are always different in duration".
How many specialists care for the belugas at this time and do you have your own veterinarian present?
"8 to 9 trainers work with the animals. Each animal has his own team of around 4 people that are specifically trained for that animal, but all trainers know how to handle and train both animals. The welfare of our animals is maintained by a large team of several different positions: Animal keepers/trainers, an animal welfare officer, curators, veterinarians, a Zoological operations director and assistant, a Biological Management Control Officer (CACSA staff), researchers, animal care and welfare committee members, enrichment committee members and external advisors. We also maintain a “whistleblower-policy” in which any of these people in that chain of command or other out of the sector can anonymously report any concerns including potential malpractices or injustices. There are 9 vets involved with the animals. About 3 are clinical vets dedicated to the facility to do procedures, then there are another two at a management level (including myself) who do not work hands-on with the animals as much but have the capacity to do so and provide advice in complicated cases. Then vetsinvolved with us through the Foundation via the stranding network and Research Programs. They exchange knowledge with the rest of the team but they do not work directly with our animals as we don’t want transmission of diseases. All veterinary check-ups are strictly designed for the individual animal and base our medicine program to prevent illness or injury rather than to treat it".
What does the animals’ diet consist of?
"They have a diet of capelin, herring, squid and other cephalopods (like octopus for enrichment), hake, whiting and an array of vitamins and supplements. Gelatin can also be used to give them some extra fluids".
You actually had a birth, making you the first facility in Europe that has successfully bred this species. How was this made possible?
"It is correct we are the only facility in Europe who had baby beluga born successfully. The breeding of belugas in captivity is complicated. Keeping them under the right conditions is only the beginning. They have one reproductive period annually which comes down to just about one fertile day per year. When there is no successful fertilization on that day you have to wait another year. We were focusing on reproducing since we then had the only belugas in Europe. So our commitment (next to welfare of the animals) was also to help spread the species in captivity so we could use those animals in important research. Especially with research that cannot be done in the wild. Maternal care for belugas is not just based on instinct, but very importantly on social culture. The females teach each other important maternal care in the wild. Since we had only one female this was not possible at our facility. In the beginning we had to hand raise the calf for the first 6 months. This was very complicated, as neonates rely a lot on immunoglobulin in the milk of the mother. We knew that if the calf did not get this it could lead to infections. So previously, just in case before parturition, we took plasma from a blood sample of the mother to extract these antibodies and help the calf’s immune system. We also did not know the milk-replacing formula of belugas, but contact was made with facilities like SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium and Shedd Aquarium, who had more experience with this and they helped us. As we knew that in the wild the first birth is often not without complications we were very well prepared for every scenario. This made the birth and the successful raising of Kylu possible".
This birth must be a very valuable event for research as well, have or are any studies being carried out about the belugas in L'Oceanogràfic?
"Yes, currently we are publishing about 15 – 20 scientific papers a year. Not just about the belugas but also about our dolphins, turtles and a lot of other animals that live in our facility.
With the animals here at our facility we have a great opportunity to train them to cooperate with scientists and research experts. This makes it possible to take samples, study the animals very closely or applying devices to the animal that you just can’t do on wild animals without disturbing them. Some studies can’t be done in wild without harming the animals, but some also can’t be done in captivity. That is why we participate in both. For example; researcher Audra Ames is comparing acoustic data from mother calf contact calls studied in our facility on wild narwhals in Greenland. Studies at the Oceanogràfic actually served to decipher narwhals vocalizations in the Arctic. Also we have performed here studies on their hearing capacity and how noises from boat traffic routes could be affecting them. So what we do here in captivity can be directly transferred to research in the field. This way we can even apply it on rescued animals. In case of Kylu’s birth: We developed a syringe to dispense the milk into the calves’ mouth. Because newborn cetaceans do not just suckle the milk like other mammals, but the mother pushes the milk into the mouth directly. As the calf displayed nursing behavior we could operate this syringe with our fingers to push the milk into the mouth for a more natural experience. This technique was developed here and was actually used on a stranded beluga calf in Alaska named Tyonek during rehabilitation. We are currently also working together with a stranding network so that all our knowledge can be used on stranded marine mammals. As we speak we are also trying to contribute with capacity building in rehab on places like the Galapagos islands and in Thailand, to see what we can do there for species conservation".
Do you consider a link between visiting L'Oceanogràfic and conservation, education etc?
"We understand that in keeping these animals under our care, we have a responsibility to contribute to research and conservation, but also education to the public. In our opinion the mission of modern zoos, aquaria and dolphinariums is to try to raise awareness among people and change society to be more sustainable. It is also important to reconnect the youth with nature. Being a public aquarium we have the privilege to bring people and especially kids into contact with animals and the natural world. It is of course important to first guarantee the welfare of the animals under our care and from that point on we deploy this mission. For example: we changed our dolphin show to an educational presentation. Here we are sometimes faced with the problem that visitors are complaining that the presentations are now boring, while others complain it’s still too much ‘show’ when you train animals to do things at all. For us the message is the most important. When people come here and see a beluga whale up close for the first time in their life or how the dolphins are bonded with their trainers it is a good way to sensitize and create care and awareness among the public. In this way we utilize these ‘popular’ animals that people feel close to, to also ask attention for the conservation of all the other aquatic animals and nature as a whole. Take a look at our own projects: We do a lot of conservation for salamanders, frogs, fish, mussels and plants but it is way more difficult to ask people to care for and donate to a mussel than a beluga whale. In that way the belugas, dolphins, sharks and turtles are ambassadors that make the public visit us and as they are inside the facility they also get to learn and care about all the other species that inhabit our planet. The overall goal is inspiring protection of biodiversity as a whole, not just marine mammals, but marine mammals work very well as umbrella species".
What does the future hold for the belugas at L'Oceanogràfic?
"We would like to continue keeping this species, but only in a sustainable way. We are not actively looking for a new beluga at this time, but we are open to receive new animals in need. For example if an animal from Ukraine in a war zone needs a place due to safety issues or a rescue animal. What we are currently working on is more enrichment for the belugas. Like reintroducing other marine mammals such as seals in their habitat and even more fish or aquatic birds. We also want to actively keep working on research with the animals. and keep learning on how we can better protect wild populations".
We were allowed to visit the beluga habitat behind the scenes and witness one of the training sessions. The beluga habitat consists out of the public area that is visible through the glass, but also a pool system behind the scenes. Ártico is an enormous complex on itself, but even just the beluga area took some time to navigate around. The area was clean and organized, especially for a behind the scenes area. The animals had free access between the public area and the behind the scenes areas. The complex’s blue and white tones emphasized the chilly temperature. We were met by the beluga team who were ready for a training session with the animals. Several boardwalks and rafts are installed around the complex to approach the belugas. I was invited to one of the boardwalks to witness the training. Both animals were stationed at their own designated trainer. Now and then they were called to another location at the basin, which is part of their training. This way the trainers and caretakers can easily manage the animals and approach and move them throughout the complex entirely on free will. The social bond between the animals and their trainers was especially noticeable. The animals visually reacted to the voices and touch of the trainers. The belugas also used sound and exaggerated facial expressions to communicate with their trainers. Where you would expect the animal to be calm, awaiting the instructed behaviors they instead seemed very active, eager and playful. Even after the training was over the animals lingered in the vicinity of the trainers at the edge of the basin. This was clearly a very positive experience for them. Since the animals work in direct contact with their trainer they do not have to be sedated or restrained for physical check-ups, minor treatments, blood sampling or even transportation. As the animal is rewarded via the positive reinforcement method, it is unlikely to link negative experiences or emotions to these routines. The training process of the belugas, dolphins and even sharks and other animals is in every way reached with the “Positive Reinforcement” method. Most people may already be familiar with it as the most well-known variation of this method: the so called “clicker training”, which is very popular in pets. The basic principle of this method is to reward the animal for a desirable behavior. When the animal displays an undesirable behavior this is ignored instead of correcting or giving some form of punishment. Then the behavior is asked again. The main purpose of this training method is to have the animal displaying desired behaviors without experiencing negativity such as stress, fear or aggression. The method is very successful as the animal only experiences positive or neutral stimuli. Therefore it is used on hundreds of species today of which mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and even insects! The key to marine mammal training is to use a signal that clarifies to the animal they are displaying the desired behavior and that a reward is following. This signal is used in the form of a high frequency whistle. The reward is mainly food as this is instinctively a highly positive stimulus for animals, but this certainly not always the case. The belugas are also rewarded with things such as a toy, gelatin, ice cubes, water sprays or the enthusiasm of their trainer, (similar to for example dog training). There was a huge amount of enrichment present for the animals. During the time at the public area we also saw the belugas playing with many different versions of these enrichment options.
We returned at another day as normal park guests to experience what a regular visitor of L’Oceanogràfic would have. The entrance is an impressive futuristic building, as are several more structures throughout park. This immediately draws you into the unique atmosphere that is unlike any other aquarium we have visited before. While the park is situated closely to the city of Valencia, with buildings being visible in the background on many locations of the park, it did not disturb the scenery very much. Overall the park had the feeling of a green and blue oasis among the cityscape. Water and foliage is present throughout the park. Botanically everything is really pleasing to the eye. Where the outside pools once used to be blue and sterile, there are now habitats for several local flora and fauna. This makes it so that several different species of wildlife are around you at all times, which is a great addition to the scenery and the experience. Education is clearly present throughout the park in playful and colorful ways. There are also several opportunities to learn about the foundation’s conservation efforts. What stood out to me were the clear conservation messages throughout the park, be it in the restaurant, on soda dispensers or in the different kinds of recycle bins throughout the park. All conveying the message of recycling, reducing plastic waste and taking care of the planet. The animal enclosures were large and clean. While the park may not seem very large, most of the impressive aquariums are below ground level. L’Oceanogràfic has a great array of species on display divided into several areas, which really take you on a breathtaking journey around the world. From Spanish estuaries and the Mediterranean sea to the Red Sea, Arctic, Antarctic and the different islands an inlets of the world. Ártico is by far the most impressive enclosure of the park. Guests enter a giant, twelve meter tall igloo divided into two levels. Many different species representing the arctic ecosystem can be found here. You start on the top level, where you have an overview on the enclosures from above. Species such as harbor seals, puffins, jellyfish and arctic fish inhabit this ecosystem. At the end you also come across Gentoo penguins from the Antarctic region. By far the most impressive enclosure and species are the belugas which you can see gliding gracefully across the panoramic glass wall. Only through the glass where you can see the entire animal up close you realize how large these animals actually are. Their enclosure is fitted with white rocks and live fish for enrichment purposes. Significant is the reaction of the public to the belugas. With gasps or spoken out words of awe the visitors approach the glass window of the white whales. There was a visual reaction from nearly every person that entered the vicinity of the beluga window. Looks of wonderment, people trying to take a picture of themselves with the belugas or placing their hand on the glass as if to try and form some sort of connection with the animals, clearly there is some kind of attachment that people feel towards these animals. Something you did not see happening at the other aquaria, even the ones with other popular species such as sharks, seals and penguins. It is this deeper connection to the animals that creates this legitimacy, this “justification” for zoos and aquaria. You can see that experiencing these animals up close has an effect on people. This same feeling of awe that drew the first people to Boston Aquarial Gardens or Coney Island in the 1800’s, this feeling of wanting to capture the moment, or making a deeper connection and ultimately in these modern times, wanting to protect these animals after meeting them up close and learning about the hazards that they face in the wild.
I named this article “a future for belugas”. Where in the first place I meant the future for captive animals in Europe, I now feel that I touched a much broader sense of the subject. While researching and visiting both these facilities in Iceland and Valencia there was something that became very clear. While both facilities are very different in concept, they have exactly the same vision! The essence of both facilities is that they want to guarantee the animals’ welfare and give them the best possible living conditions, while also utilizing the animals for research, education and conservation purposes. This means that the animals at both facilities are directly and indirectly benefiting their wild counterparts. Making this not only about the future of these four individual animals, but about the future of the species as a whole. This is an absolutely beautiful objective in my opinion. Since belugas can live up to sixty or possibly even seventy years of age in captivity, these four European animals could continue to contribute to research, education and conservation for many more years to come. During my visits to these facilities one thing would simply not leave my thoughts: “How wonderful would it be if these two facilities worked together in their efforts to improve the quality of life of captive belugas in Europe and the species as a whole?” Where at first I thought this was probably not realistic, I am happy to have heard that L’Oceanogràfic is actually in the process of making contact and possibly even visiting the SEALIFE Trust Beluga Sanctuary! This along with the efforts that both companies make in keeping and maintaining these species - efforts I have witnessed firsthand myself- make me think that there is a future for belugas after all. Not just in Europe, but as a species we share this planet with.