Beluga whales Little White and Little Grey, who are now based at the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary in Heimaey in the Westman Islands, will soon move to a new home in Klettsvík bay. On our recent trip to the island, we visited the sanctuary to see how the belugas are getting ready for their big move and what challenges the Sea Life Trust team faces. Audrey Padgett, the General Manager of the sanctuary, showed us around and shared unique insights about the whales.
From the pool to the bay
The four-meter whales were born in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia; they were taken from the wild as babies and lived in an indoor facility in China before being rescued and transferred to the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary in 2019. In the summer of 2022, they will be moved to an open-water sanctuary in Klettsvík bay.
Little White and Little Grey had already been successfully transported into Klettsvík bay before, in the hopes that they would adapt quickly to the new environment and be one step closer to being released into the ocean. However, the change was too sudden and too overwhelming for the belugas, and they were moved back to the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary while adaptations were made to the bay. “They’re wild animals but they don’t really know that they’re wild animals,” Audrey points out. “We have a great opportunity to help them remember, relearn, and re-acquire the skills needed to live in that environment.” They were not used to rain, storms, fish, seaweed or anything else that is not usually found in an artificial pool.
“They’re wild animals but they don’t really know that they’re wild animals.”
Animal comfort is the priority
“We didn’t have a blueprint to follow and we’re doing a lot of this for the first time, and for the first time with beluga whales,” says Audrey. “But we learned a lot from what was done with Keiko. Also we had some people on board who had worked with the United States Navy with us. There are a lot of places that take care of marine mammals in the open sea, but not in a space this big. And they are using those animals for different reasons.”
Audrey highlights that the end goal is to make belugas comfortable for the long-term future: “These whales are going to be here for 40 years, so we want long-term success. It’s not about one good season, it’s how do you set them up so that they understand the changing environment? And that they not only understand it but then they can thrive?”
Not only is the team trying to provide the most comfortable conditions for the belugas, but they are also working on emergency preparedness plans. “We are preparing for all kinds of natural disasters,” shares Audrey. “We have backup plans for…let’s say there’s an earthquake, a volcanic event here on this island, or even something like an oil spill.”
In the next few weeks, the belugas will be transferred to the bay. Audrey and the team are overseeing the process. She tells: “We figured out exactly who is where, who is helping us from the island, we have divers who are helping us, a veterinarian who flies in from Spain.”
The journey from the beluga sanctuary to the facility in Klettsvík Bay is a short one, but the team is working day and night to make sure it will be stress-free for the animals. A special structure with stretchers and mats will be mounted on a tugboat that will transport the animals. “It’s a short trip, but you need a lot of hands to do the different tasks. The structure will give the belugas a bit of comfort. You don’t want them to feel insecure.” The estimated time of the transportation will be 20 minutes.
How are belugas doing now?
While the final preparations for the move are underway, Little White and Little Grey are enjoying themselves at the Sea Life Trust pool, a tank which holds 2 million liters of water. The pool has natural light access, in addition to LED lights whose settings change according to the seasons.. “They’ve actually both resumed hormone cycling for the year. And there had been no record of that in China,” tells Audrey. “Largely because they were in a facility with completely indoor artificial lights. They had no idea about the seasonality.”
The belugas undergo medical checks on a regular basis, some of the checks, e.g., visual checks are performed every day, and skin and saliva samples are taken a couple of times per week. “If we observe anything questionable, we can take blood samples and send them to the lab in Reykjavík and have that analysis done just to make sure everything’s okay, shares Audrey. “But bigger veterinary checks are scheduled four times a year.”
“We didn’t have a blueprint to follow and we’re doing a lot of this for the first time.”
The belugas have gained quite a bit of weight since being in Iceland and are enjoying a diet primarily based on the Icelandic herring. Audrey says: “They each eat 23 kilos of food a day, restaurant-quality food. We’re really lucky to be here in one of the biggest fishing areas of the world, and we get really good quality for them, but they also need variety, so we get squid for them, we get blue whiting…just to try and get them used to that variety. When they stayed in the aquarium in China, they ate the same thing every day for years, it was good for them, but they would see a fish out in the bay and were confused. They don’t know that the fish swimming is the same thing they’re eating.”
At the moment, the belugas are entertained by the sanctuary staff six times a day, but as the daylight in Iceland grows longer, the team will try to adapt, to offer belugas more engagement during the daylight hours.
Visit, see or adopt the belugas
How can you see the belugas? Right now you can find the belugas at the sanctuary and see them through the underwater viewing window. The belugas are usually very curious and would swim to the window and show off their toys. However, the carers highlighted that they are not there for entertainment, so if they do not want to go to the window and interact, they don’t have to. When we were there, a school choir came to sing for them, and they seemed to enjoy it.
Once the outdoor facility is completely ready, the belugas will be moved there. After that, the best way to see them will be by booking a boat trip. The boats will not approach or bother the belugas but rather drive by the area where they will be staying.
Right now, you can also adopt the belugas with all proceeds going to the Sea Life Trust.