Two beluga whales from a Shanghai aquarium arrived in Iceland to live their days in a single marine sanctuary that environmentalists hope will become a model for the reintegration of 3,000 creatures currently in captivity.
Little Gray and Little White, two 12-year-old belugas left behind their previous lives entertain visitors to Changfeng Ocean World and have flown around the world in specially adapted containers.
The whales, which weigh about 900 kg each and are four meters long, will continue their epic journey by truck and ferry to the sanctuary of Klettsvik Bay in Heimaey, one of the Westman islands off the southern coast of Iceland.
The conservation charity Sea Life Trust, which was at the forefront of the project, said the bay is the world's first open water beluga sanctuary and was chosen to "provide a more natural sub-arctic environment and a wilder habitat for these wonderful whales that they call home ".
Andy Bool, head of the Sea Life Trust, said: "We have been working with Little White and Little Gray for the last 18 months to make sure they are prepared and ready for the long journey."
After years of captivity, the whales will still be cared for in their new compensated Icelandic sea pen, which covers 32,000 square meters and is 10 meters deep, because they are thought to not survive alone in the wild.
And they will still see tourists, with a visitor center built on the site and plans for small groups to get closer to the whales in the boat.
Merlin Entertainments, based in Great Britain, which operates several aquariums, took over Changfeng Ocean World in 2012 and started looking for a new home for Little Gray and Little White.
Whales originally come from Russian arctic waters and are thought to have been two or three years old when captured.
Klettsvik is the place where Keiko, the killer whale in the 1993 film Free Willy, was brought in 1998. The orca was completely released in 2002 but did not completely adapt to life in nature and died 18 months later in a Norwegian fjord.
The activists criticized Merlin for continuing the beluga whale shows before the move and indicated the irony of choosing Iceland as a destination as it openly challenged an international ban on whaling.
Shanghai whales have been trained to hold their breath longer, to become physically stronger to cope with tides and currents and are using fat to help them cope with the colder water temperatures. The Belugas typically live for 40 to 60 years.
More than 3,000 whales and dolphins are kept in captivity and it is hoped that eight more belugas can join Little Gray and Little White in the future.
"We will potentially try to bring more belugas to the shrine in time, once Little White and Little Gray settle in," said Cathy Williamson of Conservation of whales and dolphins charity.
He added that environmentalists "hope that our sanctuary project will provide a plan for the development of sanctuaries in other parts of the world".
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