Our search for a beluga sanctuary location

As you may be aware, it has taken us a number of years to complete our search for a sanctuary site for the belugas taken into the care of Merlin Entertainments when they bought an aquarium in Shanghai, China. 

We had to find suitable cold water conditions in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and our search took us to sites in Russia, near where two of the belugas were captured, and to Norway, where we hoped to find the necessary local and national support for our project. Finally we turned to Iceland and that’s where we have found what we are now happy to call our preferred beluga sanctuary site. It just happens to be in a bay in the Westman Islands, south of the mainland, which was once famous for offering a home to another captive whale in need of sanctuary.

WDC's Rob Lott at our preferred beluga sanctuary site in Iceland
WDC's Rob Lott at our preferred beluga sanctuary site in Iceland

HISTORIC HOME

In September 1998, Keiko, the orca ‘star’ of the Free Willy films, was flown to a rehabilitation site (a giant sea pen) in Klettsvik Bay on the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar. He was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979 and spent most of his captive life in an amusement park in Mexico. Each month, following his return to Iceland, Keiko became more independent, recovering his health, making contact with local wild orcas and exploring the rich ocean environment of his birth. In 2002, Keiko swam nearly 1,000 miles between Iceland and Norway in complete freedom.

 In the days before his death in Taknes Bay, Norway, in 2003, a year after he left Iceland, he was free to come and go as he pleased, something he would never have experienced had he remained in captivity. When he died Keiko was around 26-years-old. In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 30 years but in captivity only, on average, a third as long.

Although there are no current plans to release the belugas, our hope now is that Klettsvik Bay will maintain its reputation as a place of sanctuary and rehabilitation for captive whales, and provide a home for captive belugas. Conditions in terms of depth, pH, temperature and salinity are all within natural beluga range. The bay also offers a good deal of space in its more sheltered areas to accommodate a protected sea pen that can safely house a small number of belugas, with the option of expanding facilities to accommodate more belugas in the future.

METICULOUS PLANNING

To create the sanctuary, part of the bay will be closed off using piles and netting, providing a secure and relatively quiet space for the belugas with limited disturbance. Wave attenuators, which are like floating breakwaters, will be part of the infrastructure, helping to reduce wave action in a bay that can experience significant winter storms.

Klettsvik Bay, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
Klettsvik Bay, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland

Staff facilities will be provided on an adjacent floating boat or barge, while research and visitor facilities, as well as a fully equipped veterinary laboratory, will be located a short distance across the bay in an existing building that will be redeveloped for purpose. There are good local fish supplies, access to local infrastructure, roads, airports and a ferry port, and overwhelming local support for the project.

We are now having conversations with the government ministries from whom we need to obtain the permits to operate the sanctuary, import the belugas and care for them in the bay. Once we have the necessary go-ahead from the Icelandic authorities, this will help us with our approaches to the Chinese government who need to give permission for the belugas to leave China.

Our hope is that if this all goes well, it will set us up for a possible sanctuary opening date in 2019.

IN MEMORY OF JUN JUN

It is with heavy hearts we acknowledge the fact that only two of the belugas who have been part of our sanctuary story for so long will now be moved to our sanctuary. Tragically, Jun Jun died in June.

Jun Jun the beluga
Jun Jun

She was17-years-old and experts had been working hard to address a long-term, underlying health condition. She was the third beluga we hoped to move. We dearly wanted her to feel the ocean on her skin again and for her to enjoy some of the choices that wild belugas have the freedom to make. We regret her passing deeply.

Our work to progress this project for the two other belugas she was held with, Little White and Little Grey, continues in earnest and in memory of Jun Jun.

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Comments

What you're doing is just a great work. To create a secure and relatively quiet space for the belugas with limited disturbance means to provide a home for these captive belugas, and for more belugas in the future. We hope the Chinese government will permit the belugas to leave China.

Thank you for the great work you are doing!!
There are plans for a sanctuary to be built here in North America (maybe in B.C.) for orcas and other cetaceans.

I didn't know that sanctuaries for Orcas' was possible. Fantastic news and Good Luck.

That is amazing. I'd love to see you, The National Baltimore Aquarium and The Whale Sanctuary Project work together to find the best places to create any other sanctuaries should the need arise.

That's absolutely brilliant news such a beautiful spot for them. Let's hope that China do some good in the animal world & agree to it. Come on China give yourself a better name for yourselves for the animal world for a change instead of the usual bad one You have!
Fantastic work that you all do at WDC you should be so proud . Sorry & so sad to hear bout Jun Jun let's hope her death wouldn't be in vain & that we'll all carry on fighting for her & every other one that needs your help

Well done. No animal should be used for entertainment! Freedom is the greatest gift ! Thank you for all your hard work !

I become so upset reading about another species that we are abusing. What gives us the right to capture,cage and sometimes kill other species? All animals deserve their freedom, after all we have fought long and hard for ours.

Why not make a massive enclosure and when you can let the beligas out and want them to come back you whistle.

So pleased that after all the work searching, you have found a haven for the belugas. Good luck with the negotiations and lets hope all goes well for their move to a better place ASAP

I am so happy when I hear
In your news letters how well all the Whales are doing. Its so magical to watch tgem swimming in their natural environment not in oversize baths which is how i think of these aquariums that some are stuck in. You all work so hard. Well done. I look forward to hearing more news soon.

I AGREE WITH ALL THE COMMENTS

GILLIAN MORRISON

It's great news that we are now treating the creatures that share our planet with a little more respect,keep up this important task.

Good and sad news. Thank you so much for your hard work, I am so glad some people still care. Poor Jun Jun. How cute she looks in the picture. Been to Cornwall surfing etc., saw
one Seal and one Dolphin (only back and fin, disappeared quickly). It made me more determined to help them. Try to send you some money as soon as I can.

Thank You very much for your commitment and tremendous work. If You Look gor a opportunity to share Your achievement: www.naturalscience.org sea Departement and upcoming Congress Thank You very much for caring!

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Captivity