WDC is continuing to work with Merlin Entertainments in an effort to find a location for a natural sea sanctuary in order to remove three belugas currently housed in Merlin’s Chang Feng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai, China. Despite many obstacles and months of work to find a location off the coast of Russia (where the belugas were born in the wild), it has not proved possible to find a suitable location there and the search is now focussing on other potential cold water sites for the sanctuary. Finding the right site for the sanctuary is critical for the welfare of the belugas.
Cathy Williamson, WDC’s anti-captivity programme lead said: “As the welfare and conservation partner in this project, and an organisation that campaigns to end whale and dolphin captivity, we have been working with and advising Merlin for many months. We welcome their continued genuine commitment to helping WDC identify and develop a purpose-built wild sea sanctuary for the belugas. This has been a long process to-date, but one that we will make every effort to bring to fruition for the long term welfare of these amazing creatures.”
Read the full Merlin update statement below:
MERLIN ENTERTAINMENTS AND WDC BELUGA SANCTUARY UPDATE
Merlin Entertainments plc (‘Merlin’), and its conservation partner, WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) are continuing efforts to establish a natural, sea sanctuary for the three belugas currently housed in Merlin’s Chang Feng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai, China.
Merlin’s team of veterinarians and marine life experts, together with WDC and a team of independent whale and dolphin specialists and advisors have spent months investigating various options for the belugas’ future. A considerable amount of exploratory work has been undertaken so far with the ultimate goal of bringing the belugas to a purpose-built, coastal sanctuary in a safe and secure natural habitat, where the belugas will benefit from the enrichment and stimulation of a natural coastline. Here the whales would live out the rest of their lives in a much larger, more natural environment, well cared for and no longer performing for public audiences. The whales will also be assessed by independent experts as to their health and suitability for release back into the wild. If this is viewed as possible, a programme for their phased return to their native waters would be planned and enacted.
The proposed sanctuary will also serve as a global centre for non-invasive research, education and conservation. Research that will serve not only to further knowledge about the care of belugas in natural sanctuary environments, but also focus on the rehabilitation of individuals for possible wild reintroductions. Such research will greatly increase the chances of such opportunities being available to the many other belugas, and indeed other cetaceans (whales and dolphins), in captivity around the world.
Given the primary objective is the welfare of the belugas, finding a suitable location for the sanctuary has proven very challenging and time consuming. In order to ensure the health and welfare of each individual whale is not compromised, very rigorous ‘site-selection’ criteria have rightly been established. Failure to undertake this work would only jeopardise the health of the belugas.
Initial considerations focused on returning the belugas to Russia, where they were born in the wild. However, after months of negotiation and research, the site identified proved to be unsuitable on welfare grounds. Every effort is now being made to investigate alternative locations in suitable cold water environments. These dedicated efforts include engaging with local, national and international decision-makers and other stakeholders to make this ambitious and pioneering project a reality.
A project like this involves many variables and has never been attempted on this scale before. Therefore, no exact timeline can be provided as efforts to obtain special permits and necessary long-term funding also present many on-going challenges.
While efforts to identify and secure a suitable sanctuary location continue, Merlin continues to support the belugas’ health and welfare, and, importantly, to prepare them physically and behaviourally for relocation to a wild sea sanctuary. A new regime is currently being developed for the belugas, a critical part of which are natural behaviour and enrichment programmes which not only help improve their health and fitness, but which also form the basis of educational messaging about the whales to visitors to Shanghai.
Commenting, Merlin reiterated that their only objective in this matter has always been the welfare of the belugas and they are committed to working with WDC to find a suitable sanctuary where the belugas can be relocated as soon as possible.