Over 100 Whales Still In Russian "Whale Jail" Months After First Spotted As Investigation Drags On

This footage was shot back in November. Now, as the winter chill freezes the ice in the enclosures, a team must work to remove the ice so the animals can breathe and surface for air. Masha Netrebenko/Facebook

Somewhere in the realm of 100 belugas and killer whales are being held captive in what's been dubbed a “whale jail” by media in Russia and abroad. Prosecutors are investigating the cramped quarters and potentially life-threatening conditions, especially as the winter chill freezes ice into the enclosures. A team must now work to remove the ice so the animals can breathe and surface for air. 

Activists fear the whales will be sold to water parks and aquariums in China, which would be a blatant disregard of international laws. The concern arises from reports of such precedent by the companies between 2013 and 2016, according to Russian Newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The companies under investigation are Bely Kit, Afalina Oceanarium DV, and Sochi Dolphinarium.

Although illegal to sell the creatures abroad, it is legal for the firms to sell the whales to local Russian aquariums. However, news outlets have doubted whether local facilities have the capacity to take all the marine mammals. Meanwhile, orcas on the Chinese black market can fetch millions of dollars. 

The situation first made headlines in November last year when drone footage revealed the whales’ confined cells. The whales have been detained since summer 2018.

Although regional authorities have opened an investigation into the capture of the mammals, they continue to endure meager quarters as winter makes their plight all the more difficult. Experts say their health appears to be diminishing and that more than a dozen of the belugas are babies that likely haven’t been weaned from their mother’s milk yet. 

Legally, the capture of orcas and killer whales is allowed for scientific and educational purposes. However, calves and pregnant mothers are vehemently forbidden. 

A recently released video of the holding facility shows a crane lifting a whale out of a container. For what reason remains unknown at this time.

Three NGOs have filed a lawsuit against multiple Russian government agencies. Three of the four companies with ownership over the animals claim they were sourced legally. Bely Kit confirmed their plans to sell the whales to aquariums, according to National Geographic

Meanwhile, Jean-Michel Cousteau, ocean expert and environmentalist (and son of Jacques Cousteau), has called on Vladimir Putin to set them free.  

The director of Afalina LLC maintain their legal stance to local media: “We acted within the framework of the existing legislation.”

Russian investigators have now published an updated response, saying: “Investigators will promptly take comprehensive measures to return all marine mammals to their natural habitat.”

Whether any of the individuals involved will be convicted of a crime remains to be seen. The task now is for investigators to establish seller intent and to check whether or not proper permit requirements were followed. 

One way to prevent such “whale jails” from happening in the future would be to ban the capture and sale of whales all together – no loopholes. Some argue that these days it’s possible to study with state-of-the-art technology and that the capture of marine wildlife for water parks is gratuitous.

For now, it seems the state of the investigation is rather unclear.

[H/T: National Geographic]

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