Russia’s notorious “whale jail” is no more.
Following a huge international backlash, the last of the belugas housed at the “whale jail” on Russia’s Far East coast have been released into the wild, according to a statement from the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO). An estimated 10 orcas and 87 beluga whales were once held at the facility, which consisted of cramped, ice-covered enclosures in a gloomy bay near the Pacific port of Nakhodka.
The situation first made headlines in November 2018 when conservationists shared drone footage of the whales’ enclosures (video below). The video quickly went viral, sparking an international outcry from activists and even some high-profile celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio. The Russian government was relatively receptive to the criticism, with President Vladimir Putin himself asking his government to investigate the whale enclosures.
Following a lengthy investigation, prosecutors eventually deemed the enclosures illegal and ordered the company to release the whales, along with a fine of 28.1 million rubles ($432,000).
The whales have since been steadily released in several batches starting in early summer, with the last of the orcas being freed in August. On November 10, 2019, authorities stated that the release of the last belugas into the Bay of Uspeniya had been completed successfully.
“During transportation, the animals behaved calmly, their behavior was monitored by scientists, veterinarians and experienced trainers,” VNIRO said in a statement. “Three large individuals have satellite tags that will allow scientists to monitor the movement of animals in the wild.”
However, the move has received some criticism. Conservation group Free Russian Whales notes that two of the belugas that were being transported currently remain unaccounted for. The Whale Sanctuary Project also argues that the choice of location, the Bay of Uspeniya, could put whales at risk of poaching and natural hazards.
“This outcome is not ideal for the belugas, since this is not their normal habitat or the area where they were captured,” Jean-Michel Cousteau and Charles Vinick of the Whale Sanctuary Project said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we trust the intention of Russian government authorities to release the belugas, despite limitations due to the availability of ships, inadequate finances, and weather conditions.”
“We also hope that visual monitoring will help reduce concerns about threats from North Korean fishing vessels that we understand are poaching in the area and that the Russian government will do what is necessary to protect the belugas from repeat capture.”
While the situation might not be ideal, a worse fate was facing the captured orcas and belugas. It’s thought the animals were illegally caught last year to be sold to marine parks and aquariums in China, where the captive orca park industry is booming.