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Beluga Whales Train for Sanctuary in Iceland

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Beluga Whales Train for Sanctuary in Iceland

Photo: Sea Life Trust

The female beluga whales Little White and Little Grey are preparing for their planned move from Shanghai to Iceland to the first beluga whale sanctuary in the world, RÚV reports. The animals will stay in an open protection zone for whales in Vestmannaeyjar, the first of its kind in the world. The staff at the zoo in Shanghai have been preparing the whales for their new surroundings in the Atlantic ocean.

A protection zone of 32 000 square metres with a depth of 10 metres has been allotted for the whales in the secluded bay Klettsvík in Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The area will be zoned off by a loose net so that the marine life in the cove will not be affected too much, as well as giving the whales a zone to call their home. The project is being handled by Merlin Entertainments in co-operation with the town of Vestmannaeyjar. The beluga whales are relatively young as they have only lived 12 years of the 35-50 years expected lifespan of the species.

Strict training ahead

Their trainers have been preparing them for the cold waters of the North Atlantic by feeding them ample amounts of fat-rich fish, such as herring and capelin, to help them build up an isolating layer of blubber. The whales are also undergoing training to ensure that they are prepared for the different natural surroundings, as they are not accustomed to diving and dealing with tides and currents. "Like with athletes we have to build up their endurance, as they have been in the park for a long time. The water in the protection zone will be deeper and they will have much more space than before" commented Mark Todd, a specialist in the behaviour of mammals.

Little Grey and Little White have very different and unique personalities. While Little White is shy and reserved, Little Grey is much more vocal and mischievous. Iker Wang, the head trainer at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, said he will miss the animals "But they came from nature and now they will head back to their natural surroundings. It must be like heading home for them, and we are all happy on behalf of Little White and Little Grey."

Merlin comes to Vestmannaeyjar

Merlin Entertainment has been in talks with the town of Vestmannaeyjar for some time as they have been looking for a sustainable rehoming solution for the belugas ever since the company acquired Changfeng Ocean World in 2012, driven by its philosophy to not keep cetaceans such as whales and dolphins in captivity. The estimated total investment for the project will be around 3 million ISK (27.8 million $, 24 million €), which Merlin will fund for the most part. The independent animal protection organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society will assist with the financing for the transportation costs and the construction of the protection zone.

A contract was finally sealed last year, as Merlin will rent the space in Klettsvík for the next twenty years. The facilities in the area will include a whale and nature museum, as well as the protection zone for the whales. Elliði Vignisson, the then mayor of Vestmannaeyjar, announced that there were plans afoot to set up a refuge for young puffins.

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