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Harbour porpoise. Image: Charlie Phillips/WDC

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How do you build a beluga whale sanctuary?

Preparing a new home for two ex-captive belugas is a wonderful world first.

The future of the two captive beluga whales we are building a sanctuary for, in a remote location in Iceland, is looking more certain by the day. As the weather improves and we get the necessary endorsements for our sanctuary to be built, we are getting closer to the stage when we can put the first spade in the ground. So how do you build a sanctuary for belugas?

Our beluga sanctuary will be the world’s first. We know from the swim-with-dolphins industry that captive dolphins and even belugas can survive in areas of coastline that are netted-off. But, these sea pen facilities are often overcrowded, in unsuitable areas with shallow water and at risk from pollution.

In contrast to these commercial facilities, which are built and operated to provide entertainment to human visitors wanting to swim with dolphins, our sanctuary will be built for belugas. The welfare of the whales will be our primary concern as we create an environment which will enable them to live as natural a life as possible.  A safe, secure net will be strung across Klettsvik Bay in Iceland’s Westman Islands and anchored to the sea floor. Sadly, as these belugas have been in captivity for so long, it’s not possible to simply release them into the open ocean – they wouldn’t know how to survive. So this net will enclose a large area of sea within which the belugas will be able to roam and explore its natural features and wildlife and feel the rhythm of waves and tides and the dynamic power of the North Atlantic weather. The seaward side of the sea pen will be buffered by floating breakwaters called wave attenuators, which will help to reduce wave action in a bay that can experience severe storms throughout the year. The sea pen will be built before the winter and robustly tested through the season of most severe storms and ice before the belugas can be moved into it.

Across the bay in the small town of Vestmannaeyjar, existing buildings will be renovated and expanded to accommodate a visitor centre and critical care pool. The critical care pool is essential and will provide an indoor space where the belugas will recover after their long journey from Shanghai. It will also provide somewhere the belugas can be brought, if absolutely necessary, in an emergency. This could be an injury or illness that cannot be effectively treated in the sea pen, a pollution incident such as an oil spill or very severe weather. Adjacent to the pool will be laboratories dedicated to non-invasive beluga research and care. Visitors to the centre will be able to learn the story of the belugas, about belugas in the wild and what they can do to help protect them. There is already a puffin hospital on the site and we will add local natural history exhibits. Every spring, thousands of baby puffins (pufflings) are blown off course and end up on the streets of Vestmannaeyjar. Local people rescue these disorientated young birds and bring them to the puffin hospital to be checked over before returning them to the wild.

Belugas are naturally found in harsh, Arctic and sub-arctic environments and are naturally suited to northern climes, where daylight is in short supply for much of the year. In such a location, work outside, particularly in a marine environment, can be hampered by rain, winds, ice and fog, even in the middle of summer. There’s a relatively short window in which building work will be possible, and interruptions due to poor weather and extreme environmental conditions all need to be taken into account. The sea pen in particular needs to be weather proof, wave proof and saltwater proof as well as resilient to possible damage from curious belugas!

Construction on the world’s first sanctuary for captive belugas will soon begin. As a world first, there has been much to learn and there will be more to learn as our project progresses. The expertise involved at all levels gives us reassurance that the sanctuary will provide a safe, but much more natural, and stimulating environment for the beluga individuals who come to live out the rest of their lives in retirement. The proof of the pudding will be in how Little White and Little Grey, the first belugas we will be bringing to Iceland, enjoy their new, purpose-built, safe and healthy, natural sanctuary. We hope they thrive there and that their time performing tricks for human ‘entertainment’ becomes a distant memory for them.