Whale of a time: Belugas set to depart for new home in Iceland


The two beloved beluga whales

It will be a freedom of sorts for two much-loved beluga whales in Shanghai, who will depart on a long journey at daybreak on Wednesday and travel all the way to their new home in Iceland.

Xiao Bai and Xiao Hui, Little White and Little Gray, both 13 years old, who have been in Shanghai since 2010, are scheduled to take a flight around 5:30am on Wednesday from Pudong International Airport and head for their new home in Iceland at the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, the world’s first open-water sanctuary for beluga, which aims to encourage the rehabilitation of captive whales into their natural environment.

The trip will take 11 hours, and the aircraft is scheduled to land in Iceland at 9am local time, according to Claude Zehren, executive vice president of flight operations of Luxembourg’s Cargolux Airlines, which will operate the flight.

Accompanied by veterinarians, the duo will take a special Boeing 747, adorned with their photos and names. Their trainers, who have looked after them for so many years, will fly alongside them.

Apart from the three pilots, two veterinarians, two trainers and an engineer will also be on the plane.

The aircraft that will transport the beluga whales

Their flight route

By air, land and sea, the two whales, both 3.9 meters long, will go on a 9,000-kilometer, 30-hour-plus journey to a bay in Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, off the southern coast of Iceland.

They will stay in two containers, each 5.5 meters in length, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high, according to Marc Roveri, head of global customer service of Cargolux.

"We will try to avoid turbulence so they do not hit the container and get hurt," said Zehren.

The duo will sleep on a "bed" hanging in the container to avoid moving.

Preparations for the trip took about 10 months.

"We needed to design a crate and we had to attach the container in the aircraft," Roveri revealed. "During the trip, the water will be changed from time to time to keep it fresh."

The whales will not be fed during the trip. A total of 350 kilos of ice is being prepared for each beluga to maintain the water temperature.

Belugas are very smart and fast learners. Little White is shy and introverted but Little Gray is active, curious and naughty, their keepers at the Changfeng Ocean World in Putuo District say.

The container the beluga whales will be transported in

But with the temperature of the water in their new home likely to be much lower than their current environment, the keepers have been preparing whales for the changes by gradually increasing their calorie intake over several months.

The belugas have been fed more herring and capelin, two species of fish native to northern waters. Crab and shellfish have also been introduced to their pool. They have been familiarized with the equipment that will be used on their long journey and with the staff who will care for them on their way.

Since June last year, they have been in intensive training. The whales have been taught to hold their breath longer underwater to improve their diving skills. They are also much stronger swimmers, ready to adapt to the tides and rushing waters of the North Atlantic.

At the sanctuary, they will gradually be acclimatized to the lower water temperature. Their trainers will remain with them, perhaps for years, monitoring their health and mood.

The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary was created in partnership with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation and is the first of its kind for cetaceans.

The secluded bay, which will become the new home of Little White and Little Gray, covers 32,000 square meters, with a depth of up to 10 meters.

Source: SHINE

Editor: Liu Qi

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