Sanctuary update - beluga boot camp

We are getting nearer to a big announcement about where our sanctuary for ex-captive beluga whales will be. In the meantime, we’re making great progress.

Now we can update you on what’s happening to get three captive beluga whales ready for their new life in a sea sanctuary. It’s not going to be possible (for the sake of their welfare) to just release them into the sanctuary without some preparation. They need to re-learn how to be more like wild belugas again, with more space, greater freedom and choice over their own lives, and also how to cope with conditions in a more natural environment. We’re calling this preparation, Beluga Boot Camp.

You can be a part of this adventure by making a donation today.

Jun Jun, Little Grey and Little White are three female beluga whales. They were taken from the wild in Russian waters when they were very young and transported thousands of miles to an aquarium in Shanghai, China. They have been there ever since, in an indoor pool, far from home, on public display to visitors. The fate of these three whales changed when Merlin Entertainments bought the aquarium in 2012. Merlin has a strict policy against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity and when these three whales came into Merlin’s care, work began, in partnership with WDC, on creating the world’s first sanctuary for captive whales.

Jun-Jun the beluga whale

The daily lives of these three individuals are already changing to prepare them for their big move to the sanctuary. We need to make sure the belugas are physically and mentally robust enough to cope with transportation to the sanctuary and the conditions once they are there.

It’s far more complex than you might imagine and involves training the belugas in certain types of behaviour to increase their level of fitness and strength, not unlike a daily exercise class, to help them prepare for life in the sanctuary. The belugas need to be fit and healthy, so they are under constant monitoring to pick up and address any signs of weight loss, illness and so on.

Little White the beluga whale
Little White

Water temperature will be colder in the sea, so they will need to increase blubber thickness through carefully managed changes in their tank. They will also need to increase their ability to hold their breath, given that they are likely to spend so much more time underwater once in the sanctuary, where there will be lots for them to explore. And with that in mind, they will be trained to recognise dangerous objects that they might find in the natural environment of the sanctuary, so they aren’t tempted to eat them. Ideally the three belugas need to continue to get on well with one another, something that is not always easy to achieve with an artificial social group in a confined space. Their mental health is being addressed daily through interactive activity with humans who they know well, the introduction of new objects (toys) to make their current enclosure more interesting, and careful management of any changes in their conditions so they don’t get stressed by them.

Eventually, the whales will be removed from the water and transported, in small containers, by truck and aeroplane. This is risky and the whales will need to be well prepared to help alleviate the stress. The belugas will be 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. With such sensitive individuals as these three belugas, the operation to prepare them for life in a sanctuary is not unlike what the scientists at the Mars training camp have had to undergo: months of intense, careful, supported training to prepare them for a new environment and new experiences. How it differs from that project is that our aim is to bring the belugas to a safe, natural environment which will support their mental and physical recovery away from their concrete tank and in a much larger, more stimulating space, in conditions that will give them greater freedom over the way that they live their own lives.

Read more about the sanctuary project.

WDC is working in partnership with Merlin Entertainments on this project, providing expert guidance on welfare and conservation every step of the way. Make a donation today and help us continue this vital work.


It is so refreshing to the spirit to read this Good News! Thank you to everyone in making this happen!!!

Really, awesome news. We need many more of those ocean sanctuaries to save its precious species and one of our most important ecosystems, the oceans. Beside, it will mean the end of the horrid dolphin drive hunt in Taiji.

What wonderful news! Thank heavens for a sanctuary large enough and reputable enough to take these three darlings. Let us hope that soon there will be no need of sanctuary except for those wild found at sea in need of care and/or treatment temporarily and that whales, dolphins, seals and sea-lions will be left to bask out their lives in the wide open seas, without capture or injurious slaughter, for their entire oceanic lives.

It really is heartening and good on you Merlin and WDC for making it happen.

Just amazing, keep us updated! #emptyALLthetanks !

If we humans were more civilised we would not be keeping these wonderful creatures in captivity.

How right you are.They are beautiful creatures and we must safe guard them for all our sakes.Well done to these amazing people.

Please SAVE the WONDERFUL BELUGA ~ THX in the Name of Humanity

Will they be trained to 'hunt' for food or will they continue to be fed by humans while in the sanctuary? Also, could you elaborate on the 'greater freedom' they will experience in the sanctuary?

Thanks for your question, Sherri. We very much hope that part of the belugas' life in the sanctuary will be about reverting to natural beluga behaviour including hunting for live fish. But that will be very much up to them and they will be fed if they don't hunt for themselves. We expect to have to do this initially at least. In terms of greater freedom, the belugas will have more space, the natural environment to explore, diving to depth and they will have more choice over their daily lives, compared to belugas in a concrete tank where everything they do is determined by the facility staff.

I didnt ask this question but thanks for the info. What wonderful news this is! Little White, Jun Jun and Little Grey are going to he soo happy! If they only knew what was about to happen :D!

Thank you!

Well done guys! All the best from Canada

Why are you collaborating with a corporation that exploits sea life as its very brand? It's nice that they will no longer hold whales and dolphins in captivity, but they still hold seals, sharks and every other imaginable animal from the sea in captivity. I don't quite understand this deal with the devil. Why don't you raise money to build your own sanctuary and accept their Belugas as your first residents? Why affiliate with a captive exploiter?

Hi Teresa. That is a very good question. In essence raising the huge sum of money (millions of pounds) is not something WDC can do alone. Also, WDC exists to protect whales and dolphins and as such has to focus its finite resources and considerable expertise on this area alone. We appreciate that you may have issues with other areas of SEA LIFE's work but WDC is confident that the declared position of SEA LIFE, and Merlin Entertainments with respect to whales and dolphins is fully compatible with WDC’s own opposition to the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity. Indeed, WDC has worked closely with SEA LIFE over many years and believes that this relationship has delivered real conservation and protection benefits for whales and dolphins around the world. SEA LIFE opposes the captivity of whales and dolphins and accepts the arguments that WDC puts forward as to why they are unsuitable for captivity. We are getting closer to a sanctuary for these particular belugas and hope you can support WDC with this specific project. Many thanks.

Wonderful news what you're doing with the lovely Belugas. I do hope all goes well with the rehab.

Thanks for this information. I had no idea you were doing this. I really hoe all goes well

Perhaps you will now campaign to persuade the Russians to stop capturing Belugas for export to China. I gather Russia also kills around 150 whales every year, surely it would be great for them to at least reduce the numbers?

Thanks for your comment, Brian. We are working in fora like the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on Migratory Species to address the hunting of all whales and dolphins and live captures of belugas and other whales and dolphins. Projects like the Far East Russia Orca Project are doing an amazing job to document and highlight the impact of live captures on small populations (and helping to persuade the authorities in Russia not to issue annual quotas for orcas) and like the China Cetacean Alliance, raising awareness in China about the impact of live capture and captivity there. It's a slow process but we continue fighting. The listing of the targeted beluga population on the US Marine Mammal Protection Act will also help put international pressure on Russia to end beluga captures. Thanks for all your support.

Thank you Merlins Entertainments~you did and recognized a beautiful thing!

Thank you!

Thank goodness for people like you.
Happiness to them all.

So nice to read this , it is good to hear the positive for these beautiful animals !

What wonderful news. These 3 beautiful amazing girls can finally be free from people staring at them. Hope boot camp goes well for them & they can now finally be happy . Let's also hope more can be done to stop Russia from murdering whales & capturing more beluga's. Brilliant job merlin entertainment thank you for helping these 3 beauties

What wonderful working you are doing. Thank you so much.

this is the most amazing news, hope those three girls start to thrive in their new surroundings. a big thank you from the bottom of my heart, to all who made this happen, and Well done Merlin, such fantastic news.

Huge credit to Merlin Entertainments who made this possible and to WDC for their amazing determination to make this happen.So refreshing in this world of increased corruption and terrorism.

The rehab is clearly a highly complex process, I am so grateful and impressed by the skill and dedication which clearly goes into it. But how do you acclimatise the whales and minimise the huge stess they will experience when being suspended and crated ready to be (finally) free? Is there any risk to the others' welfare/mental state if one of the whales can't cope well? Would you have to separate them?

Thanks for your question, Elizabeth. Transport is risky for whales and that is why preparations for the belugas to undergo transport to the sanctuary are beginning so early. By getting them used to the equipment used for transport and the experts who will travel with them, we hope to minimise the stress. Also by planning the transport logistics very carefully and preparing for any contingencies. The Live Animal Regulations of the International Air Transport Association specify that whales must be carried individually in stretchers so they will not all be held in the same transport container.

I have been following the Whale Sanctuary Project and did not realize how big of a part you have in the WSP/Merlin partnership.
There are so many marine mammals who we all hope to see return to the sea (via sea sanctuary or who will make a sanctuary their forever home) is so much better than the captive entertainment industry.
Looking into the details the costs will be high to get this first Sanctuary off the ground. I am going to make my donation now and encourage others to do the same.

Mahalo Nui Loa from Oahu,