The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) is reviewing a request, sent in April, from a British company interested in transporting three beluga whales (white whales) from an aquarium in Shanghai, China, to Vestmannaeyjar islands, Fréttablaðið reports. The plan would be to eventually release them into the ocean, if conditions allow.
The British company Merlin Entertainment, which owns the animals, has looked for a place to release them the world over and recently received a denial from Russia. Now, the company has shifted its focus toward Vestmannaeyjar.
The islanders are not new to receiving whales that have been in captivity. In 1998, the orca Keiko, star of the Free Willie movies, was brought to Vestmannaeyjar in preparation for a life in the wild. After extensive training, Keiko was finally released in July of 2002, believed to be ready for life in the open ocean. Keiko did, however, miss human contact and sought proximity to people in a fjord in Norway in September that year. Keiko died of pneumonia in December of 2003.
According to information from MAST, the beluga whales are not thought to be likely to carry diseases, but given the long distance to Iceland, MAST asked the company to turn in a risk assessment in accordance with nature protection law and law regarding the importation of animals. That assessment is now in its final stage.
Merlin Entertainments owns and operates 124 amusement parks, 13 hotels and five theme villages in 24 countries. It employs 25,000 people, and returned a profit last year of ISK 34 billion (USD 300 million, EUR 289 million).
When the company purchased the Chang Feng Ocean World aquarium in 2011, a promise was made to allow the belugas to swim the oceans free again.
The plan is to release the whales into man-made sea pens, where they would be able to spend the rest of their days swimming, free from the obligation to perform tricks for spectators. Whether a complete release into the ocean would ever be possible is yet to be determined.