Twelve-year-old beluga whales "Little White" and "Little Grey" are preparing to move into a new home. The open-air sanctuary – based in Iceland – is the first of its kind worldwide and is on track to open in the spring of next year after being six years in the making.
There are currently 105 orcas (aka killer whales) and beluga whales held in captivity in North America alone. Globally, more than 3,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises spend their days in tanks so that visitors can pay to gawk at and play with these majestic creatures.
"Little White" and "Little Grey", who are currently residing in an amusement park in China, are two of the lucky ones who will get to spend the rest of their days in a 32,000-square-meter (345,000-square-foot) sanctuary off the Westman Islands, near the southwest coast of Iceland. The location was chosen after extensive studies examining the seabed, weather conditions, and water quality of the environment. Runners-up included sites in Norway and Russia.
Wildlife experts also had to check the site's noise levels – like their "unicorn-horned" cousins, belugas are skittish creatures.
As the pair were raised in captivity, they will never be able "return" to the wild, but this will at least give them better conditions and more space to roam than their current set up.
“This is both an animal welfare project and a tourism project,” says Westman Islands mayor Elliði Vignisson. Reports the Iceland Review.
“These are exhibition animals and will remain as such, but with completely different and more humane conditions.”
And it just so happens to be the same location that offered sanctuary to Keiko (meaning "lucky one" in Japanese), the killer whale of Free Willy fame. Born in Iceland, held captive in Mexico, and then made famous in Hollywood, Keiko spent his last few years in Iceland. After spending time at the sanctuary and being rehabilitated, he was released into the wild in 2002. Tragically, he died a little more than a year later, apparently of pneumonia.
As for the two belugas, the world's smallest whale, trainers are now introducing them to the equipment that will be used to carry them on the 35-hour journey as well as teaching them how to hold their breath and swim faster to prepare them for life in their new home.
[H/T: New Scientist]