Scooped from the ocean by a Russian whale research centre as two- or three-year-olds, Little White and Little Grey went on to spend years performing at a indoor aquarium in Shanghai.
But when the facility was sold in 2012, the new owners wanted to free the pair of captive belugas and see them returned to the wild.
That has finally happened over the weekend off Iceland’s Westman Islands at the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary where the 13-year-old female belugas now call home.
Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust, said seeing the belugas on their first morning in Klettsvik Bay was an “absolutely amazing feeling,” perhaps an even better feeling for Little White and Little Grey.
“Seeing them breaching together, the sunlight glinting off their backs,” Bool said. “They won’t have felt direct sunlight like that since they were very young animals, when they were first taken from the wild. All the sunlight they’ve felt has been through windows in indoor pools.
Their new home is a slice of whale heaven.
Not long!— Beluga Whale Sanctuary (@BelugaSanctuary) June 12, 2020
At 32,000m² (344,445ft²), Klettsvik Bay is much larger than anything Little White and Little Grey have experienced before.
It will give them the freedom to explore, swim and deep dive in a natural environment, while allowing us to be able to monitor them pic.twitter.com/jl5ZaByKGy
It was a long road to get to here via air, land and sea voyages.
Their more than 9,600-kilometre journey around the world began in June, 2019. That’s when the pair left Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai destined for the sanctuary on Heimaey Island., which is the Westman Islands main island.
Sea Life Trust, in conjunction with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, created the world’s first open-water sanctuary for belugas, which was funded in part by Merlin Entertainment — the company that took over the Shanghai aquarium.
The whales have gone through a a long process of acclimatizing.
“Ahead of Little White and Little Grey’s move into their forever home, it is important that they can live in the colder waters,” officials explained. “After months of preparation, their bodies have adapted to 8 degrees from 15 degrees, and they are able to maintain their body weight!”
They still need more time, a few weeks anyway, in their new environment of “care pools” before they’ll be able to explore the wider environment.
“They will stay in the sea sanctuary care pools for a short amount of time to acclimatise until they are ready to move out into the wider bay,” Sea Life Trust explained.
Officials hope other owners of captive belugas (there are about 300) see this effort — and its progress — and look for ways to return their whales to the wild.
“It’s a giant leap forward for how we can care for these animals in a natural setting,” Bool said, as scientists will follow their progress. “We hope that can then persuade others that maybe their beluga whales might be better off in a different envirnment. and be cared for in a different environment.”
Photos: Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary/Facebook