Two beluga whales freed from captivity in China arrive in Iceland
Two beluga whales freed from cap
Two beluga whales freed from captivity in China arrive in Iceland after 6,000-mile flight to begin a new life at an open-water sanctuary
- The two 12-year-old females, Little White and Little Grey, will be cared for in a netted-off sanctuary in Iceland
- They are beginning a new life after they were freed from captivity at the Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai
- Yesterday they were unloaded from specially prepared tanks in Iceland after being carried on a cargo plane
Passenger: A tank containing a Beluga whale is unloaded from an aircraft in Iceland, where the two creatures will be given a new home in an open-water sanctuary
Two freed beluga whales have arrived in Iceland to take up a new home in an open-water marine sanctuary after a 6,000-mile journey from China.
Little White and Little Grey, two 12-year-old female belugas, have left behind their previous lives in captivity when they entertained visitors at Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai - before a British firm bought the aquarium and resolved to free them.
After 18 months of preparations, they were flown around the world in special containers on a cargo plane before being unloaded at Iceland's Keflavik International Airport on Wednesday.
They are continuing their journey by truck and ferry to the sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay, on an island off the south coast of Iceland.
After years in captivity, the whales will still be cared for in their new netted-off Icelandic sea pen, as it is thought they would not survive on their own in the wild.
The two whales each weigh around 2,000 pounds and measure 13 feet long.
The conservation charity Sea Life Trust, which has been at the forefront of the project, said the bay is the world's first open water beluga sanctuary and had been selected to 'provide a more natural sub-Arctic environment and wilder habitat for these amazing whales to call home'.
'We have been working with Little White and Little Grey for the last 18 months to make sure that they will be prepared and ready for the long journey,' said Andy Bool, Head of Sea Life Trust.
The new sanctuary is located at Klettsvik Bay at Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland.
The two creatures will still see tourists, with a visitor centre built at the site and plans for small groups to be able to approach the whales by boat.
Originally from Russian Arctic waters, it is thought they were two or three years old when captured.
In captivity: The two beluga whales, Little White and Little Grey, are seen performing during a show in Shanghai. They will now help populate a sanctuary in Iceland for freed marine mammals
Start of the journey: Little White and Little Grey are loaded into crates in Shanghai's Pudong International Airport, to be transported to Iceland in a 6,000-mile journey by air, land and sea
New home: This is Klettsvik Bay in Iceland where the two belugas are to be rehomed in an open-water sanctuary, because it is thought they would not survive on their own in the wild
Whales on their way: The cargo plane, which has been painted in recognition of Little White and Little Grey's journey, is loaded with the two beluga whales in Shanghai ahead of their journey
Previous life: The two whales are seen in captivity in Shanghai before they were transported to Klettsvik Bay in Iceland
British-based Merlin Entertainments took over Changfeng Ocean World in 2012 and started looking for a new environment to house Little White and Little Grey.
'We are sad to see them leave but we understand that they come from nature,' said Iker Wang, head trainer at Chengfeng aquarium.
The company, which also owns Legoland, has a policy against captive whales and dolphins and teamed up with the Sea Life Trust to spearhead the effort.
The Shanghai whales have been trained to hold their breath for longer, become physically stronger to cope with tides and currents, and are putting on blubber to help them cope with the colder water temperatures.
Economy class: One of the beluga whales is inspected inside a tank before it is unloaded from the aircraft in Iceland
Not a frequent flyer: A view of one of the whale tanks which were used to transport the two creatures across the ocean
New start: One of the two 12-year-old female belugas which have left behind their previous lives entertaining visitors at the Changfeng Ocean World
Belugas typically live for 40 to 60 years.
More than 3,000 whales and dolphins are kept in captivity and it is hoped that up to eight other belugas could join Little White and Little Grey in the future.
'We will be looking to potentially bringing other belugas to the sanctuary in time once Little White and Little Grey settle in,' said Cathy Williamson of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation charity.
She added conservationists were 'hoping that our sanctuary project will provide a blueprint for the development of sanctuaries in other parts of the world'.
Klettsvik is where Keiko, the killer whale in the 1993 film 'Free Willy', was flown in 1998.
The orca was fully released in 2002 but did not fully adapt to life in the wild and died 18 months later in a Norwegian fjord.
Campaigners have criticised Merlin for continuing the beluga whale shows ahead of the transfer and pointed to the irony of choosing Iceland as a destination since it openly defies an international ban on hunting whales.
The life they left behind: The two whales are escorted by trainers during a show at the aquarium in Shanghai
Another leg complete: The two belugas are unloaded from the plane at Keflavik Airport in Iceland on Wednesday
Cargo: The tanks are seen inside the aircraft. Keepers say they have been preparing the whales for the long-distance journey
In the open air: The tanks are unloaded on to the tarmac in Iceland. Originally from Russian Arctic waters, it is thought that the whales were two or three years old when captured
Temporary shelter: The Sea Life Trust care pool at Klettsvik Bay, Iceland, where the two whales will be going into quarantine