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Providing answers to questions raised about sanctuaries

Last month, we reported on the devastating death of Jun Jun, a female captive beluga whale at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, who was part of our project to develop the world’s first sanctuary for belugas. Sadly, Jun Jun will now never go to a sanctuary but our work to progress this project for the two other belugas she was held with, Little White and Little Grey, continues in earnest and in memory of Jun Jun.

Following the tragic news about Jun Jun, questions have been raised in some quarters about how she was being cared for and about our efforts to establish a sanctuary for her and the other two belugas she was held with. Here, we respond to some of those questions.

WDC’s involvement in the current care of the belugas

Jun Jun was not in the care of WDC. Her daily care and training and any decision-making about her care was undertaken by Merlin staff and experts involved in the project by Merlin, including experts employed in other parts of the zoo and aquarium industry who work with other captive whales and dolphins. This reflects support for the project from industry representatives willing to look at alternative environments for captive whales and dolphins and also enables the same staff to care for the belugas at each stage of their journey to and at the sanctuary.

Belugas need natural conditions in order to behave more naturally

No aquarium can provide a natural home for belugas. These belugas were born in the wild. Their natural home is the Russian Sea of Okhotsk and the Russian White Sea. Beluga natural behaviour does not involve doing tricks and stunts for paying visitors. Natural behaviour involves spending time underwater, exploring their natural environment, socialising with whom they choose, when they choose. Healthy belugas are fitter in the wild than in captivity, enabling them to travel long distances and hunt for fish.

It’s taking longer than we had hoped to establish the sanctuary

WDC is working with Merlin to establish a sanctuary for belugas because Merlin has always maintained that whales and dolphins are unsuited to captivity and worked to provide alternative environments for the whales and dolphins who have come into its care, including in sanctuaries. It has been a long process to find the right site, secure the necessary local support and explore conditions needed to provide the belugas with an environment that supports their long-term health and welfare. We now have a preferred site and we are investigating the permits required to move the belugas there, among other things.

Sanctuaries for captive whales and dolphins use sea pens in natural environments

Sanctuaries for whales and dolphins in natural environments automatically require the establishment of a “sea pen” – a very large, fenced off piece of coast to contain the individuals for the rest of their lives if they cannot return to the ocean or while they undergo rehabilitation to return to the wild if it is appropriate for them to do so.

The belugas may need help to adapt to conditions in the sanctuary

These belugas were born in the wild. As a species, belugas have adapted naturally, over millennia, to natural sea conditions. A concrete tank in an aquarium is a completely unnatural environment for them.

Following years in an indoor pool, the belugas will need to adapt, slowly and carefully, to colder temperatures in the sanctuary. This is being done over time, exposing them to colder temperatures in their current pool, then once in the sanctuary location in a critical care pool, before they can be released into the natural sea pen. They are also being encouraged to put on a thicker blubber layer to prepare them for the colder temperatures. In the critical care pool they will be introduced to local bacteria through the addition of local seawater and monitored carefully, until they have adapted well enough to be transferred to the natural sea pen.

The belugas will not be left to fend for themselves in the sanctuary

The belugas will continue to receive daily care from sanctuary staff. Love and care also naturally come from the belugas themselves, towards one another, especially if they are in an environment where they have more freedom to choose how they spend time with one another.

Keiko was better off when he was returned to his natural waters

Keiko is the only captive orca to have undergone rehabilitation in natural waters and a return to the wild. Each month following his return to Iceland (the place of his capture), Keiko became more independent, recovering his health, making contact with local wild orcas and exploring the rich ocean environment of his birth. In 2002, Keiko swam nearly 1,000 miles between Iceland and Norway in complete freedom. In the days before his death in Taknes, Norway, in 2003, a year after he left Iceland, he was free to come and go as he pleased, something he would never have experienced had he remained in captivity. When he died, Keiko was around 26 years old. In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 30 years and in captivity only, on average, a third as long.

Little White and Little Grey are not currently part of a rehabilitation project for a return to the wild as Keiko was. The intention is to care for them for the rest of their lives in the sanctuary. All belugas brought to the sanctuary will be assessed over time for their suitability to return to the wild, however, in a dedicated, appropriate release project, in their natural waters.

Sanctuaries are about caring for captive whales and dolphins in more natural conditions that aim to improve their health and welfare

In captivity, whales and dolphins suffer health and welfare problems not seen in the wild. They live in unnatural environments and are subject to a regime of training for circus style shows and medical procedures, a diet of dead fish and vitamins and a cocktail of antibiotics and other drugs to keep them alive. They are there to make money for the companies who display them. Sanctuaries are focused on the needs and desires of the whale and dolphin individuals themselves. They are provided with the care they need but are given more choice over their own lives in more natural conditions, without the need to perform. Therefore sanctuaries are about supporting and protecting the individual, much like our work to develop a declaration of rights for whales and dolphins.