7 min read

Captive Belugas Take Plane Ride To The Most Amazing Surprise

"They come from nature ... this project is allowing them to go back home."

It has been 10 years since two beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, have seen the ocean.

Beluga whales from Chinese aquarium to retire in Iceland
Sea Life Trust

The whales were just 2 years old when they were captured in waters off Russia and brought to Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China.

Since then, they've lived in tanks.

Now Little Grey and Little White are 12 years old. They might have been stuck in captivity for another several decades — beluga whales can live to be as old as 50 or 60 in the wild — but everything just changed for them.

Beluga whales from Chinese aquarium to retire in Iceland
Sea Life Trust

This week, some visitors arrived in China to let Little Grey and Little White in on a little secret that's been developing for quite a while, thanks to Sea Life Trust: They are finally going home.  

Beluga whales from Chinese aquarium to retire in Iceland
Sea Life Trust

Little Grey and Little White will be the first residents of the first open-water beluga whale sanctuary in the world

This short underwater camera clip offers a glimpse of Little Grey and Little White's new home in a breathtakingly beautiful bay on an island off the southern coast of Iceland. 

The challenge, of course, was transporting them there — it's a journey of about 6,000 miles, and even once Little Grey and Little White arrive, they will need to go through a process getting them prepared to live in the open water again.

But people working on their retirement journey have every confidence that the belugas will adapt to their new home.

Open-water sanctuary
The open-water sanctuary in Iceland to become Little Grey and Little White's new home | Sea Life Trust

“I’ve studied and worked with beluga whales for most of my adult life," Mark Todd, an independent marine mammal behavior expert and consultant on the sanctuary, said in a statement provided to The Dodo. "They are highly intelligent marine mammals, and each possesses unique character traits. They are a playful and curious species with an incredible ability to learn new things quickly and through their range of vocalizations will tell you what they like and don’t like without hesitation."

Belugas being sent from China to Iceland sanctuary
Little Grey and Little White in the airplane bound for Iceland | Sea Life Trust

The staff at Changfeng Ocean World, who have known Little Grey and Little White for years, were supportive of sending the whales to sanctuary, helping prepare them for the trip, even if they were a bit heartbroken to have to say goodbye. 

"We’ll be sad to see them leave but we understand that they come from nature, so this project is allowing them to go back home," Iker Wang, head trainer at Changfeng Ocean World, said. "We all feel happy for Little Grey and Little White.”

Beluga whales from China retiring in sea sanctuary in Iceland
Sea Life Trust

This week, Little Grey and Little White just completed the farthest first leg of their journey back to the ocean — the roughly 6,000-mile flight from China to Iceland. In-flight snacks of herring helped the 11-hour flight go smoothly for the two whales.

Belugas' airplane lands in Iceland
Twitter/Cargolux Airlines

When the Cargolux plane carrying the two special passengers touched down in Iceland on Wednesday, people on the tarmac started to celebrate — and once news that Little Grey and Little White landed safely was released online, people all over the world applauded the whales getting one step closer to being in open water again.

"I’m so relieved!" one commenter wrote on Twitter. "[I've] been thinking of them all day!"

Airplane carrying belugas arrives in Iceland
Sea Life Trust

“Little Grey and Little White are in excellent condition," Todd said, adding that both whales received special training to prepare them for the long flight. They were then driven to a port and loaded onto a boat for the final leg of their journey.

Beluga retiring to sea sanctuary
Sea Life Trust

As of Thursday afternoon, Little Grey and Little White were introduced into a special indoor pool built just for them. They'll stay here to get acclimated and build up their strength for about one month before being released back into the ocean. 

Belugas retiring to open water sanctuary in Iceland
Little Grey and Little White side by side in a special swimming pool for them in Iceland | Sea Life Trust

“We’re absolutely delighted Little Grey and Little White have safely touched down in Iceland," Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust, said. "This is a complex but inspiring project and we’ve been working with the whales for months, helping to prepare them for traveling to their new home."

Cathy Williamson, policy manager of the End Captivity Program at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), added: “[We are] naturally very excited to be part of the welcoming committee for Little White and Little Grey as they touch down in Iceland. The world’s first whale sanctuary represents a pathway to the end of the keeping of whales and dolphins confined for entertainment."

The Dodo will continue to follow Little Grey and Little White's progress. In the meantime, you can help protect beluga whales and other ocean species by making a donation to WDC and to Sea Life Trust.