First beluga whale sanctuary officially launched

The world’s first open water sanctuary for beluga whales, a project we have been working on for many years, was officially launched today.

Created in partnership with WDC, the SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary will be located in Iceland and is one of the biggest developments in captive whale and dolphin care and protection in decades, and the first of its kind to be created for whales and dolphins. It is hoped the project will help to encourage the rehabilitation of more captive whales into natural environments in the future, and one day bring an end to whale and dolphin entertainment shows.

The sanctuary will become the new home to its first residents, two female beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White in Spring 2019.

Currently located at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China, Little Grey and Little White will take part in an incredible 6,000-mile journey and will be transported by air, land and sea to a large sanctuary in a natural bay at Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, located off the southern coast of Iceland.

The secluded bay, which measures up to 32,000 sqm with a depth of up to 10m was chosen to provide a more natural sub-Arctic environment and wild habitat for these amazing whales to call home.


Little Grey and Little White - beluga whales
Little Grey and Little White

Andy Bool, head of SEA LIFE Trust, said: “We’re delighted to break new ground in marine animal welfare with the creation of the world’s first sanctuary for beluga whales. This project has been years in the making and is a pioneering solution to how the aquarium industry can re-shape the futures of whales in captivity.

“This is a truly global effort and working with our partners, leading veterinarians and marine experts, we believe providing a more natural habitat for Little Grey and Little White to dive into cool waters and interact with the natural environment will greatly enhance their quality of life.”

Work on the SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary is already underway after planning permission was granted in April.

Backed by a donation from Merlin Entertainments and supported by the world’s largest chain of family aquariums, SEA LIFE, the sanctuary will comprise of a stunning natural sea inlet in Klettsvik Bay and include a landside care facility and visitor centre.

Chris Butler-Stroud, WDC chief executive, said: “We have long applauded the commitment of Merlin and the SEA LIFE TRUST to find a better, alternative future for these belugas, which is in line with our concerns about the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity around the world, and the need to find a solution for the thousands of individuals held.

“We are proud to have been a partner from the very beginning in this important project to improve beluga welfare and hope it will create a blueprint for further such sanctuaries for belugas and other captive whales and dolphins, which are desperately needed to address the risks captivity poses to whale and dolphin health and welfare.”

Little Grey and Little White are 12 years old and each have very different and unique personalities. While Little White is shy and reserved, Little Grey is much more vocal and mischievous.

They are taking part in a special training programme designed by a team of world leading veterinarians and cetacean experts to help them adjust for the journey ahead, as well as adapt and acclimatise to North Atlantic waters. This includes:

  • Introducing the belugas to specialist equipment including stretchers and platform training to prepare them for transportation
  • Training the whales to hold their breath underwater for longer to get them ready for diving
  • Building the belugas’ strength through fast swims in their current pool to help them adapt to the tides and current of their new home 
  • Increasing the belugas’ calorie intake of a rich diet of herring and capelin to support weight gain and extra blubber for colder waters they will experience in Iceland

Rob Hicks, director of Merlin’s animal and welfare department, said: “This is a complex and logistically challenging rehoming project of two well-loved beluga whales. Little Grey and Little White are highly intelligent marine mammals and are fast learners, but we are taking all precautions to protect their health and well-being.

“The aquarium team at Changfeng Ocean World have been very helpful in supporting this project and we will be helping each beluga to get ready for this landmark journey and their new environment. A team of vets will be with the whales at all times during transit to monitor their welfare to ensure their relocation is successful.”

A sustainable rehoming solution for the belugas has been explored ever since Merlin Entertainments acquired Changfeng Ocean World in 2012, driven by its philosophy to not keep cetaceans such as whales and dolphins in captivity. 

The Sanctuary is set to be completed in 2019, and while it will offer limited and discreet viewing of the whales for visitors to help off-set long term running costs, this will be very carefully controlled to ensure the two whales are not disturbed in their new and very natural environment. 

For more information about the SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary, visit https://www.sealifetrust.org.

Beluga sanctuary partners
Beluga sanctuary partners