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Sanctuaries for whales and dolphins

WDC is working with Merlin Entertainments to establish a sanctuary for beluga whales held in captivity. It’s a long and complicated process.
bottlenose dolphin

There are more than 3,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. If we want an end to captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. It’s a long and complicated process. You can’t just take a whale or dolphin out of a captive environment and return them to the ocean. Some may need human care for the rest of their lives, and those who are suitable for a return to the wild will need to undergo a thorough rehabilitation process and re-learn the skills they will need to survive.

Sanctuaries need to offer space and protection in clean waters of the right temperature while, ideally, being accessible to visitors so they can support the sanctuary financially, learn about the benefits of sanctuaries and spread the word. It takes time to secure the necessary financial, political and community support. Remember, if we want to see an end to captivity, we may need to find sanctuary homes for more many individuals, and this scale of project is largely uncharted territory. 

Why a partnership with Merlin?

Merlin has acquired facilities already holding captive whales and dolphins, but has also, as part of its SEA LIFE brand, taken a position against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. Merlin recognises that the highly evolved sensory abilities and complex social structures of whales and dolphins make them unsuited to confinement in captivity, and so they asked WDC to work with them to create a better future for the whales and dolphins who come into their care.

WDC is also working in partnership with other sanctuary projects too, such as the Whale Sanctuary Project in the US, a European bottlenose dolphin sanctuary with Merlin Entertainments and the Dolphin Sea Refuge in Italy.

It’s not easy!

Sanctuaries are not simple. They cannot be rushed without placing the welfare of the whales and dolphins we are trying to help in jeopardy. Moving them from their current locations is a hugely complex and costly logistical operation. 

Any whale or dolphin held for a length of time in captivity has to be assessed by an expert team to ascertain how suitable they are for transportation and release back into the wild. Assessments also need to be made on suitable locations for release, in areas where the whale or dolphin in question would naturally be found and preferably in an area with minimal threat to their continued survival and where there is a possibility that they could join a suitable natural population.

The experts

We are working within a team of experts to handle all the issues that sanctuaries bring. A team of skilled people who can deal with transport, transfer and other logistics, official approval from the local, national and international authorities concerned, and securing the millions of pounds of funds needed to finance this complicated and expensive process.

What next?

In short, surveys and tests. We are a step closer to announcing that location but we can’t do that until we are sure that it passes all the tests and meets our strict requirement criteria to ensure the best possible environment for the beluga whales. The team are now busy setting up rigorous site surveys at this location. These include studying the sea bed and the water quality in the area in question, so that we are as certain as we can be that this natural sea location will provide a clean and suitable environment for the whales to live in for years to come.  We are also studying noise levels, to ensure they are not high enough to cause the beluga whales stress. Sea conditions in the area are being analysed, including wave and swell levels, to make sure they are not too rough to be comfortable for the belugas or to cause motion sickness. We are also starting to test for potential storm impact so that the sanctuary and equipment used are not destroyed during the harsh winter months. 

If these latest site surveys yield positive results then we are another step closer to giving the three whales, Jun Jun, Little White and Little Grey, the most natural possible environment and, ultimately, a better life in the years to come. Surveys aside, we still have to tackle legal paperwork with the host nation, apply for all the necessary permits and raise more funds but, if these aspects go smoothly then we hope work on our sanctuary will commence in 2018 and the belugas will be moved to the sanctuary in the Spring of 2019. We will provide regular updates on this exciting project so you can follow the progress of the belugas on their journey to sanctuary. 

Learn more about the long road to freedom in this feature from Whale & Dolphin, our supporter magazine.


WDC's plans for whale and dolphin sanctuaries

Dolphin sanctuary requirements infographic