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Orca Lulu's body contained PCB levels 100x above the safe limit. Image: SMASS

Toxic tides, troubled whales: the toll of chemical pollution

In last week's blog, we examined the challenges whales and dolphins face as they travel...
Group of orcas at surface

Breaking barriers for whales and dolphins at the Convention of Migratory Species

Many species of whales, dolphins and porpoises undertake long journeys, encountering human-made obstacles along the...

WDC in Japan – Part 1: Finding allies in Tokyo

At the end of May, I embarked on an incredible journey to Japan on behalf...
Amazon river dolphins leaping

The state of river dolphin conservation

At Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we partner with conservationists and communities fighting to save river...
Researchers in Southeast Alaska studying whale poo

We’re funding crucial research on whale poo to combat the climate crisis

The ocean is one of the lungs of our planet, and whales help it to...
Narwhal surfacing

The unicorns of the sea must be protected – CITES

The narwhal, is under threat. Often referred to as the unicorns of the sea, narwhals,...
Sperm whales

We’re pushing governments for action for our climate heroes – whales

The climate crisis is the greatest threat to all life on Earth. But there is...
Dolphins captured for captivity in Taiji. Image: Hans Peter Roth

Loved and killed – whales and dolphins in Japan

Protests and criticism from outside Japan in response to the slaughter of whales and dolphins...
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Port River dolphins

New report reveals 100,000 dolphins and small whales hunted every year

When you hear the words ‘dolphin hunts’ it’s likely that you think of Japan or...

Minke whale hunts stop in Iceland

Iceland’s commercial hunt of minke whales has ended for this year. The common minke whale is the...

Japan set to resume commercial whaling

Reports from Japan suggest that the government they will formally propose plans to resume commercial...

End the whale hunts! Icelandic fin whaler isolated as public mood shifts

Here’s a sight I hoped never again to witness. A boat being scrubbed and repainted...

Australian Government to block Japanese whaling proposal

Japanese Government officials have reportedly confirmed that they will propose the resumption of commercial whaling...

Did Icelandic whalers really kill a blue whale?

*Warning - this blog contains an image that you may find upsetting* They say a...

Icelandic whalers breach international law and kill iconic, protected whale by mistake

Icelandic whalers out hunting fin whales for the first time in three years appear to...

Pregnant whales once again a target for Japanese whalers

Figures from Japan's whaling expedition to Antarctica during the 2017/18 austral summer have revealed that...

Doubts remain after Icelandic Marine Institute claims slaughtered whale was a hybrid not a blue

Experts remain sceptical of initial test results issued by the Icelandic Marine Institute, which indicate...

Icelandic fin whale hunting to resume

Iceland’s only fin whaling company, Hvalur hf,  announced today that it will resume fin whaling...

Norway increases whaling quota despite declining demand

Norway's government has announced an increase in the number of minke whales that can be...

Norway's whaling season begins

April 1st saw the start of the whaling season in Norway. Despite a widely-accepted international moratorium...

How do you build a beluga whale sanctuary?

Preparing a new home for two ex-captive belugas is a wonderful world first.

The future of the two captive beluga whales we are building a sanctuary for, in a remote location in Iceland, is looking more certain by the day. As the weather improves and we get the necessary endorsements for our sanctuary to be built, we are getting closer to the stage when we can put the first spade in the ground. So how do you build a sanctuary for belugas?

Our beluga sanctuary will be the world’s first. We know from the swim-with-dolphins industry that captive dolphins and even belugas can survive in areas of coastline that are netted-off. But, these sea pen facilities are often overcrowded, in unsuitable areas with shallow water and at risk from pollution.

In contrast to these commercial facilities, which are built and operated to provide entertainment to human visitors wanting to swim with dolphins, our sanctuary will be built for belugas. The welfare of the whales will be our primary concern as we create an environment which will enable them to live as natural a life as possible.  A safe, secure net will be strung across Klettsvik Bay in Iceland’s Westman Islands and anchored to the sea floor. Sadly, as these belugas have been in captivity for so long, it’s not possible to simply release them into the open ocean – they wouldn’t know how to survive. So this net will enclose a large area of sea within which the belugas will be able to roam and explore its natural features and wildlife and feel the rhythm of waves and tides and the dynamic power of the North Atlantic weather. The seaward side of the sea pen will be buffered by floating breakwaters called wave attenuators, which will help to reduce wave action in a bay that can experience severe storms throughout the year. The sea pen will be built before the winter and robustly tested through the season of most severe storms and ice before the belugas can be moved into it.

Across the bay in the small town of Vestmannaeyjar, existing buildings will be renovated and expanded to accommodate a visitor centre and critical care pool. The critical care pool is essential and will provide an indoor space where the belugas will recover after their long journey from Shanghai. It will also provide somewhere the belugas can be brought, if absolutely necessary, in an emergency. This could be an injury or illness that cannot be effectively treated in the sea pen, a pollution incident such as an oil spill or very severe weather. Adjacent to the pool will be laboratories dedicated to non-invasive beluga research and care. Visitors to the centre will be able to learn the story of the belugas, about belugas in the wild and what they can do to help protect them. There is already a puffin hospital on the site and we will add local natural history exhibits. Every spring, thousands of baby puffins (pufflings) are blown off course and end up on the streets of Vestmannaeyjar. Local people rescue these disorientated young birds and bring them to the puffin hospital to be checked over before returning them to the wild.

Belugas are naturally found in harsh, Arctic and sub-arctic environments and are naturally suited to northern climes, where daylight is in short supply for much of the year. In such a location, work outside, particularly in a marine environment, can be hampered by rain, winds, ice and fog, even in the middle of summer. There’s a relatively short window in which building work will be possible, and interruptions due to poor weather and extreme environmental conditions all need to be taken into account. The sea pen in particular needs to be weather proof, wave proof and saltwater proof as well as resilient to possible damage from curious belugas!

Construction on the world’s first sanctuary for captive belugas will soon begin. As a world first, there has been much to learn and there will be more to learn as our project progresses. The expertise involved at all levels gives us reassurance that the sanctuary will provide a safe, but much more natural, and stimulating environment for the beluga individuals who come to live out the rest of their lives in retirement. The proof of the pudding will be in how Little White and Little Grey, the first belugas we will be bringing to Iceland, enjoy their new, purpose-built, safe and healthy, natural sanctuary. We hope they thrive there and that their time performing tricks for human ‘entertainment’ becomes a distant memory for them.