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Sanctuary update – beluga boot camp

We are getting nearer to a big announcement about where our sanctuary for ex-captive beluga whales will be. In the meantime, we’re making great progress.

Now we can update you on what’s happening to get three captive beluga whales ready for their new life in a sea sanctuary. It’s not going to be possible (for the sake of their welfare) to just release them into the sanctuary without some preparation. They need to re-learn how to be more like wild belugas again, with more space, greater freedom and choice over their own lives, and also how to cope with conditions in a more natural environment. We’re calling this preparation, Beluga Boot Camp.

You can be a part of this adventure by making a donation today.

Jun Jun, Little Grey and Little White are three female beluga whales. They were taken from the wild in Russian waters when they were very young and transported thousands of miles to an aquarium in Shanghai, China. They have been there ever since, in an indoor pool, far from home, on public display to visitors. The fate of these three whales changed when Merlin Entertainments bought the aquarium in 2012. Merlin has a strict policy against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity and when these three whales came into Merlin’s care, work began, in partnership with WDC, on creating the world’s first sanctuary for captive whales.

The daily lives of these three individuals are already changing to prepare them for their big move to the sanctuary. We need to make sure the belugas are physically and mentally robust enough to cope with transportation to the sanctuary and the conditions once they are there.

It’s far more complex than you might imagine and involves training the belugas in certain types of behaviour to increase their level of fitness and strength, not unlike a daily exercise class, to help them prepare for life in the sanctuary. The belugas need to be fit and healthy, so they are under constant monitoring to pick up and address any signs of weight loss, illness and so on.

Water temperature will be colder in the sea, so they will need to increase blubber thickness through carefully managed changes in their tank. They will also need to increase their ability to hold their breath, given that they are likely to spend so much more time underwater once in the sanctuary, where there will be lots for them to explore. And with that in mind, they will be trained to recognise dangerous objects that they might find in the natural environment of the sanctuary, so they aren’t tempted to eat them. Ideally the three belugas need to continue to get on well with one another, something that is not always easy to achieve with an artificial social group in a confined space. Their mental health is being addressed daily through interactive activity with humans who they know well, the introduction of new objects (toys) to make their current enclosure more interesting, and careful management of any changes in their conditions so they don’t get stressed by them.

Eventually, the whales will be removed from the water and transported, in small containers, by truck and aeroplane. This is risky and the whales will need to be well prepared to help alleviate the stress. The belugas will be trained to familiarise themselves with suspension in a stretcher out of the water and with the people who will be with them every step of the journey. With such sensitive individuals as these three belugas, the operation to prepare them for life in a sanctuary is not unlike what the scientists at the Mars training camp have had to undergo: months of intense, careful, supported training to prepare them for a new environment and new experiences. How it differs from that project is that our aim is to bring the belugas to a safe, natural environment which will support their mental and physical recovery away from their concrete tank and in a much larger, more stimulating space, in conditions that will give them greater freedom over the way that they live their own lives.

Read more about the sanctuary project.

WDC is working in partnership with Merlin Entertainments on this project, providing expert guidance on welfare and conservation every step of the way. Make a donation today and help us continue this vital work.