New Russian Facility Planning Orca ‘Surprise’ Under Veil Of Secrecy
After nearly a year of speculation, a Russian facility has finally admitted that it has been housing two wild-caught orca whales since they were transported there last December. An official report by the VDNKh exhibition center (also called the All-Russia Exhibition Centre) in northern Moscow says that five trainers have been caring for the orcas in an 82-foot-long pool, and that the entire ordeal is legal. The report, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, said that the animals were kept secret, so that they could be "a surprise" for Moscow.
The exhibition center is holding the 7-year-old, 2.5-ton female whale named Narnia and the unnamed 5-year-old, 1.5-ton male, both of whom were caught last November in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia's Far East. They're awaiting transfer to the new VDNKh oceanarium, which is still under construction but, when finished, will be Europe's largest.
Erich Hoyt, co-director of Far East Russia Orca Project and Research Fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, had reported the fate of these orcas last year - but authorities had refused to acknowledge it.
"We said all along that they were transported in Dec. 2013 and that they were still there awaiting the opening of the aquarium," Hoyt told The Dodo. "No one had been able to confirm it until now."
Part of the reason for the confusion is the secrecy surrounding the animals since they were plucked out of the ocean almost exactly one year ago. A reporter in Moscow for The Daily Beast spoke with activists from the Russian civic groups Vita and Dolphin Embassy, who visited the park but couldn't see the animals themselves - besides empty packages of fish and the audible orca calls, video footage or photos of the whales is scarce - though this footage was recently released by the exhibition center:
Similar to captive orcas at other parks like SeaWorld, activists fear that these whales will be subject to stereotypic, repeated behaviors, isolation from normal social groups and that they lack of exercise (they can cover up to 100 miles a day in the wild).
While Moscow moves forward with whale captivity, other countries around the world are passing legislation to ban cetaceans in tanks. Bolivia, Hungary, Costa Rica, Greece, Cyprus and others have all banned the practice thus far.
Hoyt said that, given the country's track record, the future looks grim for the two whales.
"There have been orcas captured before in Russia and one survived 13 days in an aquarium on the Black Sea a decade ago," he said. "No orcas have yet been put on display for the Russian public so these would be the first - if they survive. With continued delays in the opening of this new facility in Moscow, the difficult conditions they are being kept in, and winter coming on, it's anyone's guess as to their health and survival."