12 min read

Saddest Belugas Trapped In Plastic Pools At Circus

When they're not being used, they're kept in coffin-like boxes where they can't move or swim — for up to a week at a time.

When Oxana Fedorova saw photos of two beluga dolphins inside a tiny, plastic-lined pool, her heart broke.

“I felt helpless,” Fedorova, founder of Save Dolphins, a Russian organization that helps marine animals, told The Dodo. “I knew I wanted to do everything in my power to help them."

Captive belugas inside tiny pool
Tom and Una, two beluga whales being used in the Russian Traveling Dolphinarium | Save Dolphins

A local citizen photographed the two belugas, named Tom and Una, in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk, where they were performing in a traveling circus whose name translates to “Russian Traveling Dolphinarium.”

“They looked pretty stressed,” Fedorova said. “They should be living completely different lives, roaming the ocean with their family and friends.”

Captive beluga whales in tiny pool
Tom and Una getting instructions from a trainer | Save Dolphins

Tom and Una’s life in the Russian Traveling Dolphinarium started approximately five years ago, when they were captured in the Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Russia, Fedorova explained. Since then, they’ve been forced to travel from city to city to perform in SeaWorld-like shows along with seals and dolphins.

“They do pretty basic staff, like jump to touch a ball, wave to the public or carry a trainer,” Fedorova said. In other instances, the belugas may be given a paintbrush to paint on a canvas, or made to go to the edge of the pool to “kiss” visitors for photos. In one photo, a seal can be seen riding on top of a beluga.

Seal riding on the back of beluga whale
A seal riding on the back of one of the beluga whales | Save Dolphins

In addition to the Russian Traveling Dolphinarium, one other traveling company operates in Russia, according to Fedorova — the Moscow Traveling Dolphinarium. However, Russia also has permanent facilities that mirror the conditions of these traveling dolphinariums.

“I visited a facility in Moscow that was similar in design — it had a tank just like this — above ground and lined with plastic,” Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo. “But while initially meant to be temporary, it had become permanent — it had been there two years when I was there in 2013 and I believe it is there still. It was not a traveling show, but it looked like one.”

Captive beluga in pool
Save Dolphins

The pools in the Russian traveling shows are usually no more than 10 feet deep and about 50 feet wide, according to Fedorova. In the wild, belugas are accustomed to diving to depths of 131 feet, and can travel many miles each day.

"It's like living in the bathtub," Fedorova said. "No wonder their lives don't last long — any confinement for marine mammals leads to stress, no matter how big the tank is, it's a confined space, which is simply repugnant to their nature."

Captive beluga bouncing ball
Save Dolphins

Unfortunately, the water quality inside of these pools is also extremely poor, according to Fedorova.

“They claim to have filtration systems, but ... not that long ago during the inspection in the same company's dolphinarium, high levels of E.coli bacteria were found in the water,” said Fedorova, who fears the unsanitary water will eventually kill Tom and Una.

Rose expressed similar concerns about the belugas’ well-being inside these types of pools.

Captive beluga in pool
One of the captive belugas with a scar on his lower jaw | Save Dolphins

“Any facility that is temporary in nature like this — lined with plastic, with a nylon or canvas tent covering it — is absolutely inappropriate for any species of whale or dolphin,” Rose said. “The idea that any temporary structure can provide enough space or even good enough water quality for these wide-ranging marine predators is ridiculous.”

Rose also noted that the traveling dolphinarium arenas don’t let in any natural light, and that different species of marine animals are often kept in the same pool, which would be stressful to the animals.

Captive belugas inside pool
Save Dolphins

“Russia has several such temporary enclosures — no more than backyard swimming pools — sometimes with belugas and bottlenose dolphins in the same space, meaning the water temperature is very wrong for one species or the other or for both,” Rose said.

When the traveling dolphinariums move from city to city in Russia, the belugas are taken out of the pools and placed in coffin-like transport containers. Oftentimes, they spend five to eight days inside these tanks without ever being able to swim, according to Fedorova.

“There is no filtration in that tank and staff just pump fresh water in once every couple days,” Fedorova said. “Most of the time animals are left unattended.”

While there are no videos of Tom and Una inside the transport tanks, there’s footage of Storm and Calm, two belugas who previously performed in the Russian Traveling Dolphinarium until they died last year.

Transport truck carrying captive belugas
Transport truck carrying Storm and Calm | Save Dolphins

“This video was taken a couple months before their death,” Fedorova said. “The most stressful part I think is that these giant animals, who can be 4 to 5 meters [13 to 16 feet] long, are kept in the 4.5-meter [15-feet] tanks … and it’s legal. This is animal cruelty at its worst, but it keeps happening and we keep witnessing animals die over and over again.”

Fedorova believes that the poor living conditions are what ultimately killed Storm and Calm.

Trainer riding two captive belugas
A trainer riding Storm and Calm, the two belugas who died | Save Dolphins

“Captivity killed them, and the horrible conditions in which they were kept — the small tanks, water quality, food quality, transportation,” Fedorova said.

“When we found out that Storm and Calm died I felt guilty, and felt that we failed them,” Fedorova added. “Because there is no laws protecting dolphins [and whales] and even basic standards don't exist, we couldn't do anything.”

Captive beluga inside pool
Save Dolphins

If something doesn’t change soon, Fedorova worries, Tom and Una will face the same end.

“The stress that they go through on the daily basis is enormous,” she said. “The conditions in which they are kept are horrendous — not only because of constant traveling, but because the owners of the dolphinariums don't even follow simple sanitary standards, which often result in bacterial contamination in the water. Rarely, belugas in those facilities last more than 10 years. They simply get replaced.”

Captive belugas painting a picture
Storm and Calm painting a picture during a show | Save Dolphins

Belugas live an average of 35 to 50 years in the wild.

Unfortunately, Russia’s lack of animal protection laws won’t make it easy to save Tom and Una. Not only that, but Tom and Una were captured using legal permits, according to Fedorova, and the trainers are under no legal obligation to give them up.

Captive belugas performing in a show
Tom and Una performing together | Save Dolphins

That said, Fedorova is hoping that the Russian government will pass new legislation that will permanently ban traveling dolphinariums. The only way to do that, Fedorova says, is through education and awareness.

“I believe that only people in Russia have the power to stop traveling dolphinariums and any other shows with marine mammals, and of course wild captures, but we need support from the rest of the world,” Fedorova said. “The Russian government will hear public outcry and react to it, but it has to come from Russian citizens."

Captive beluga jumping to touch ball
Save Dolphins

It’s equally important to stop the capture of belugas and other ocean animals from the Sea of Okhotsk, according to Fedorova. While some animals are kept in Russia, others are sold to different countries — including the U.S. Recently, SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium jointly tried to import 18 belugas captured in the Sea of Okhotsk, but were blocked by a judge and abandoned the plan in 2015 due to mounting public opposition.

Trainer in water with captive belugas
Tom and Una performing together | Save Dolphins

“The capture is extremely cruel and can be easily compared to Taiji,” Fedorova said. “The only difference, they don't kill belugas in Russia — they just sell them. The biggest buyer is China, after Russia itself probably.”

To help Tom, Una and other belugas in Russia, you can sign this petition to urge the Russian government to ban traveling dolphinariums. You can also sign this petition to help make it illegal to capture belugas and other animals, and to sell and use them for entertainment purposes.