Whales to be set free from Russian ‘Jail’

Author // Lucy Babey Categories // Whale & Dolphin General News

Whales to be set free from Russian ‘Jail’
A beluga whale and calf seen in Canada by an ORCA survey team on board the Saga Sapphire in 2018

87 belugas and 11 orcas are being freed from 'whale jails' where they were being kept for illegal sale to Chinese theme parks

International outrage was sparked in November 2018 when images were published, of cramped enclosures on Russia’s Pacific coast that were housing nearly 100 orcas and beluga whales.

It was suspected that the 87 beluga whales and 11 orcas were being kept in these ‘whale jails’ for illegal sale to Chinese theme parks, where just one whale could be sold for up to £6 million. It is thought that some of the animals had been held in the enclosures in Russia’s far east since July 2018, and early enquiries in a criminal investigation established fears that they had been caught illegally.

Russia’s State Investigative Committee discovered that the animals were being kept in poor conditions. Many of the whales were expected to be in poor health and when examinations were performed by experts they found that a number of the orcas had skin conditions and one appeared to be unwell. Three infant belugas and one orca are thought to have disappeared from the ‘jails’ and it is feared they have died – although owners claim the orca escaped.

An online petition to free the whales was shared on social media and gathered nearly 1.5 million signatures and at the beginning of last week, Russia vowed to release these animals. The petition even sparked the interest of Leonardo DiCaprio and an appeal was made to President Putin by actress Pamela Anderson to help.

The regional governor, Oleg Kozhemyake announced ‘An official decision has been taken to release all animals into the wild’. The decision came about at the same time as a visit to the ‘jail’ from Oceanographer Jean-Michael Cousteau, the son of the late Jacques Cousteau. 

The orcas and belugas will be released in phases to a rehabilitation facility as early as next month. The facility will mirror conditions they will experience in the wild and will begin to reduce the human contact they have been experiencing, whilst still allowing scientists to continue monitoring them. The animals will be encouraged to hunt for food, as they would in the wild and fish will be supplied via a pipe under the water. Next, they may be moved to a larger enclosed area of Srednyaya Bay to help build up strength before finally being moved to the Sea of Okhotsk where they were captured, with the hope of them rejoining the pods they were taken from.

Along with Russian scientists, members of Cousteau’s team will help to decide when and which animals will be released. Cousteau said: “Each creature is different and each creature may take a different amount of time. If we can release them they will be released where they were captured, so they can be reconnected with not only the same species but potentially some of their family or their group or their friends.”

In the 1980’s a worldwide ban was put in place which meant that whales could only be caught for educational and scientific purposes. However, some countries continue to illegally hunt and in February 2019, four Russian companies where charged by the Federal Security Service Security Service for illegally capturing these whales. 

Within the next two years it is expected that over 30 oceanariums will open in China, increasing the demand for whales like these. ORCA believe that no cetacean should be kept in captivity and we hope that soon all whales and dolphins can live freely in the wild and we can continue to learn about them by observing them in the open ocean.