These pioneering whales had travelled halfway across the world for their release. Starting off in Shanghai at Changfeng Ocean World – an aquarium bought by British-based SEA LIFE in 2012 – the belugas were moved by land, air and sea to Iceland in June 2019. Once in Iceland, Little Grey and Little White spent over a year acclimatising in custom made pools before being deemed ready for release into a larger sea pen just a few weeks ago.

The belugas’ story sparked an outpouring of support from around the world. Afterall, it was history in the making – an ambitious cetacean welfare project led by major players in the aquarium industry.

It was impossible not to smile as you watched footage of the belugas experiencing sunshine on their backs for the first time in almost a decade.

But behind the international applause was an undertone of sadness. These two belugas are the minority. They are the lucky ones. Right now, there are thousands of cetaceans trapped in concrete tanks around the world. Many of these animals are still suffering every day.

For the estimated 30,00 dolphins, orcas, and belugas currently held in captivity life is bleak and can be unnaturally short. These highly intelligent, sentient beings are often ripped from their families in the wild, transferred around the world and imprisoned in small, chlorinated pools. The conditions they’re housed in cause high mortality rates, a range of behavioural abnormalities and prolonged skin and eye irritations. Captive cetaceans often face a lifetime of welfare issues.

But as Iceland’s belugas have shown, attitudes are beginning to change. Ethical concerns have led to cetacean captivity being legislatively phased out in a growing number of countries. Just last week we stood up in Parliament to call for a legislative ban on captivity in New South Wales. More and more people are opting to see these charismatic animals in their natural environments rather than in tanks.

At AFD we’ve been leading an ambitious sea-pen sanctuary project of our own to pave the way for change in Australia. Working with the remaining marine park in NSW, we’ve teamed up with engineering experts, a leading dolphin welfare scientist, and animal welfare organisation World Animal Protection to conduct a feasibility study into building Australia’s first dolphin sea-pen sanctuary. Phase one of our study has shown the sanctuary is possible, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

This is what makes SEA LIFE’s beluga sanctuary all the more important. Their ambitious thinking has changed Little White and Little Grey’s lives for the better. These belugas are back in the ocean, as close to freedom as possible without compromising their welfare.

What’s more, this project represents hope for all cetaceans currently imprisoned in concrete tanks. It shows there is another way, that it can be done. Sea-pen sanctuaries could improve the welfare of captive cetaceans all over the world and enable captive dolphins and orcas to live out the rest of their years with dignity. Hopefully this beluga sanctuary is the first of many.