The beluga whale sanctuary is all about belugas, right? Yes of course it is, but wherever we work to protect whales and dolphins, human beings are involved too. It’s no different in Vestmannaeyjar, where we have partnered with the SEA LIFE Trust to build the world’s first beluga sanctuary on the island of Heimaey (Home Island), seven kilometres off the south coast of the Icelandic mainland.
Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands in English) is also the name of an archipelago of volcanic islands, some formed as late as 1963 as a result of underwater eruptions. Heimaey, the largest and only populated island, is inhabited by around 4,000 people, most of whom live in the main town, Vestmannaeyjar.
The archipelago is only 24 miles long. It’s an incredible place and home to an abundance of wildlife. More than 30 species of seabird nest in their millions on the cliffs and grassy ledges of the islands, the puffin being the most numerous – the islands boast the largest colony of these iconic birds in the world.
The surrounding waters host some of the North Atlantic’s richest fishing grounds, which means that marine mammals are also present in large numbers, including 23 species of whale and dolphin. The climate might not feel so hospitable to many humans – it rains a lot and the wind can be ferocious. Heimaey sits just outside the Arctic Circle and if you were to sail due south from here, the next land mass you’d hit would be Antarctica on the opposite side of the world.
An abundance of young puffins (adorably known as pufflings) appear from their burrows in the cliffs in late August and early September and, using the moonlight as a guide, fly off towards the ocean. Even a town as small as Vestmannaeyjar can be a distraction, and many head towards its bright lights, mistaking them for the moon. Every year, thousands of pufflings are found lost and disorientated in the town’s streets and gardens. Luckily, local schoolchildren and adults know this is going to happen and are ready to pick them up, put them in cardboard boxes and bring them to the local aquarium (where the sanctuary project is building a new puffin hospital) to be checked and measured and then released into the ocean.
When you bring a big project to a small community, even if it’s an already thriving one, it’s crucial to make friends. Tourism is an important industry in Vestmannaeyjar and making links with local businesses helps to cement relationships. Forging such connections also helps us to identify other opportunities for collaboration. For example, we hope local boat tour operators will take some visitors to the sanctuary before going off whale watching or to discover the island’s wildlife outside of the bay.
One of the main tourist attractions in Vestmannaeyjar is the Eldheimar or Volcano Museum, and we are working with them to encourage people coming to our beluga sanctuary to visit the museum as well.
Building a good rapport with the Vestmannaeyjar community is also important to minimise the impact of human activity on the belugas. We have been talking to the town’s harbourmaster and local skippers about keeping noise and disturbance to a minimum when they are passing the bay where the belugas will live, and we have asked fishermen not to dump fish debris near the sanctuary, which could attract seabirds.
WDC has a long-running and positive relationship with IceWhale, the Icelandic Whale Watch Association. In 1995, WDC organised a workshop in Reykjavik that led to rapid growth in responsible whale watching that has continued to this day. Whale watching plays a vital role in providing a counter to whaling in Iceland. It encourages Icelanders and visitors to see whales as important and to be protected. Last October, along with the SEA LIFE Trust, we presented an update on the sanctuary project to IceWhale representatives at their annual general meeting and attracted much interest and many questions – not surprising given the nature of what we are trying to achieve.
We are keen to continue our work with IceWhale to promote positive solutions to the threats posed to whales and dolphins around the world. This includes showcasing whale watching as an alternative to whaling and now we can add promotion of sanctuaries as a solution for captivity. We are also building links with research projects such as the Icelandic Orca Project, which operates out of Vestmannaeyjar and runs volunteer holidays for budding orca researchers.
Given the unique nature of our project and the sensitivity of the relationship between humans and whales, we have been very fortunate and heartened by the response to our project in Vestmannaeyjar and across the Icelandic mainland. Like-minded, committed individuals and organisations have been key to all of this. We have overcome many challenges to get to this point, and this groundbreaking welfare project is now on the home straight.
As our preparations to vastly improve the quality of life for Little White and Little Grey continue, these belugas have unknowingly become trailblazers in the effort to end captivity.
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There are more than 3,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. If we want an end to captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. Find out more about our ground-breaking work to create the first beluga whale sanctuary in Iceland.