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Black Sea common dolphins © Elena Gladilina

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Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

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Boto © Fernando Trujillo

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Earth Day Q&A with Waipapa Bay Wines’ marketing director, Fran Draper

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How do you move two beluga whales half way around the world?

I hope you’ve been enjoying following our story as we work to give two captive belugas a new home in a more natural ocean environment and I’m pleased to bring you our latest update. 

Whales and dolphins are simply not suited to a ‘life’ in the confinement of captivity and we are committed to doing everything we can to end this cruel practice and make life better for those already held.

In our last update on our project to create a sanctuary for ex-captive beluga whales, we talked about our preferred sanctuary site for the two belugas at Merlin Entertainment’s aquarium in Shanghai, China. We explained how this Icelandic location meets the necessary criteria for a beluga whale sanctuary and how the site had previously offered a home to Keiko, the star of the Free Willy films. As we move closer to securing the necessary permits from the government authorities in both Iceland and China, we are preparing everything needed to move the belugas from their current location to their new home in the sanctuary. That includes a transport plan. So how do you move two 1.2 tonne belugas five and a half thousand miles across the globe, as safely, kindly and swiftly as possible?

Following the rules

Believe it or not, there are rules for this kind of thing. International trade in whales and dolphins is regulated by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Any air transport must meet the requirements of the International Air Transport Association’s Live Animal Regulations. In moving Little Grey and Little White to the sanctuary, we will be subject to their strict rules on the containers we use. These regulations require the construction of a waterproof box or frame of sufficient size to permit an individual to be suspended in a stretcher of canvas, or other suitable material, supported on a foam rubber pad.

There must be slits in the stretcher to allow pectoral fins (flippers) to protrude; pectoral fins, tail fluke and head must be kept moist during transport. In the past, whales and dolphins have been transported without stretchers in water-filled boxes, which don’t restrict movement and therefore risk injury. They can be especially dangerous during take-off, when the water in the boxes can go over the heads of these air-breathing mammals. Despite the risks, belugas and other whales and dolphins are routinely and successfully transported by the captivity industry in cargo planes operated by a number of airlines.

Talking to the experts

As part of our sanctuary project, we are corresponding with independent experts who have experience in transporting belugas long distances by air. These people understand the space and personnel requirements involved and we are putting their expertise to better use this time. We will also be liaising with all the relevant aviation authorities to ensure that officials are familiar with the paperwork, so as to minimise the whales’ time on the ground in any stopover and expedite their relocation to their new home.

Little Grey and Little White are already undergoing changes in their daily routine and the pool environment to help them prepare for their big move. Their physical and mental health is of the utmost importance, and their robustness to cope with this big change in their lives is closely monitored.

Preparation is everything

Transport by truck to the airport, the thousands of air miles, and a possible ferry journey once they arrive in Iceland may all be risky to their health and they will need to be well prepared to help alleviate the stress. They are currently being trained to familiarise themselves with suspension in a stretcher out of the water, and with the people who will be with them every step of the journey, including veterinarians and other carers. Their wellbeing is our absolute number one priority.

We are doing everything we can to make sure we get it right and cause the two whales as little stress as possible. As you can imagine, all of this meticulous planning has taken an enormous amount of time and effort, but we very much hope that Little Grey and Little White will agree it’s a journey worth taking. Every step we take brings them closer to their chance for a long, natural life in a wild environment and a sanctuary they can call home.

Be part of the adventure by making a donation

About Cathy Williamson

Cathy Williamson was policy manager of our End Captivity Programme until July 2021.