Belugas Behind Bars: Activists Try to Free 18 Captive Whales

The recently captured cetaceans are stuck in the small tanks of a research station, waiting to be released.

Beluga Whales Held Captive in Russia
Captive whales have been able to re-enter the wild successfully, but authorizing their release is an uphill battle. (Photo: Stuart Gregory/Getty Images)
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Earlier this month, the federal government surprised marine-mammal activists and observers by denying a permit for two aquariums and SeaWorld to import 18 beluga whales captured off the coast of Russia

The whales have been languishing in small tanks at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station. With their ultimate fate uncertain, a new petition is now asking Moscow to set the belugas free.

Posted by the anti-captivity group Fins and Fluke on the Change.org website, the petition states:

"We are petitioning the Russian department of Fisheries and the Utrishskiy delphinarium (which commissioned the capture) to first allow a panel of experts to assess and evaluate the health and well-being of these mammals. We are then asking that pending the health of each beluga, the team be granted permission to rehabilitate and release these animals back into the ocean, where they belong."

The import application was filed by the Georgia Aquarium, though many of the animals would have been destined for display at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and all three SeaWorld parks.

The biggest fear among activists now is that all 18 whales will simply be auctioned off to the highest bidder, in countries that lack animal-welfare protections afforded in the United States, weak as they are.

"We are well aware that some of these Beluga Whales may be deemed unfit for release," the petition says. "And we are asking that the Utrishskiy delphinarium consult the expert panel to make the right decision on the type of facility these animals may end up residing in."

The wayward whales "have endured enough stress just with their capture alone to last a lifetime," notes the petition, adding that several captive cetaceans have been successfully rehabilitated and released into the wild.

These include the orca Keiko, who was the star of Free Willy, a young female orca named Springer, who just had a calf, and Tom and Misha, two wild-caught captive dolphins "still doing well in the ocean after their rehabilitation and release over a year later." Recently three wild-caught captive dolphins in South Korea were also set free.

So far, the petition has collected more than one-third of the 10,000 signatures sought, something that thrills Fins and Fluke president Alex Dorer.

"This idea had always been in place for us since news of the Georgia Aquarium's application was made public, we just didn't think we'd have the chance to actually do it, Dorer says. "We were convinced for quite some time that the import was going to be approved so we didn't think it was possible to move forward. Now the import was denied our first order of business was to reach out to several experts and make our petition public."

Fins and Fluke "made a vow to see this to the very end, and although the decision not to import these Beluga's (sic) has been made final, they are still sitting in a holding facility in Russia," she adds.

"We are hoping that ultimately these Beluga's have a fair chance at a happy, healthy life outside of a tank or a holding sea pen. It's important to us that at the very least we find out the health of these animals and allow a panel of experts to be consulted on a plan of action."

What are the chances for success? "We understand Russia is an extremely difficult country to work with, but we are hoping that they take the chance and become another country recognized for doing the right thing for cetaceans," Dorer says.

"We are extremely hopeful but we are also very realistic and do understand that there is a huge possibility that these Beluga's could be sold to a marine-park facility." Indeed, she adds, "It is entirely possible these Beluga's have already been sold, and if that's the case I would be heartbroken."

Last week, TakePart reported on a beluga trainer injured during a performance at Marineland, in Ontario, Canada. It appeared as if the whale may have bitten down on the knee of the trainer, who was reportedly hospitalized, though Marineland isn't commenting.

Was that beluga trying to send us a message, that life in a tank is stressful for such intelligent, sentient creatures? We will never know. But the timing, no matter how coincidental, is instructive. The unintended message that we might take home from that captive beluga may have been: "Captivity is painful. Let my cousins go."

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