View of the usually heavily frequented waterway to the main port of the island of Heimaey, where the "Sanctuary" is to be built. | Photo: Hansueli Krapf, license: CC BY-SA 2.5

Beluga Whale Sanctuary: Is there something Sea Life Trust wants to hide?

Exclusively for zoos.media – 14th of July 2020. Author: Philipp J. Kroiß

The opening of the Beluga Whale Sanctuary is postponed again and again. There are hints that the Sea Life Trust has got something to hide.

Beluga Whale Sanctuary: Is there something Sea Life Trust wants to hide?

The history of the Beluga Whale Sanctuary is already a history of failure. One animal already died during the project and the belugas are now in a small holding facility for much longer than ever planned. The move from this small holding facility to the net cage in the bay, which Sea Life Trust euphemistically calls “sanctuary”, was postponed on and on again.

Another postponing raises further questions

The belugas are in a small quarantine pool that is even smaller than their previous husbandry in a Chinese amusement park. On the 20th of June, the project published that they reduced filtration in the quarantine pool to adapt the animals to the water quality of the bay. Just a few days later, the project published that the animals would suffer from an infection.

Sea Life Trust described that infection as “mild” but postponed the transport for “a few weeks” at the same time. So, this bacterial stomach infection seems not to be as mild as described when it takes a yet unknown number of weeks to cure. What is Merlin Entertainments hiding? The whole story about this postponing seems pretty much made up to cover a more dangerous issue.

Reports were increasing that the belugas are not doing well in the small pools and at least one animal was reported to have its upper lip cut. The big injury would, of course, cause problems during a transport and also in the net cage which contains polluted water with a lot of bacteria that are not present in cleaned water.

It’s apparently not as easy as it was always told

The animal rights industry, which cooperates with the Merlin Entertainments‘ daughter Sea Life, always let it seem very easy to just take the animals out of zoos or aquariums and easily put them in a sea pen where they could thrive. The poor husbandry now apparently already caused at least one death, one serious injury, and a not so mild infection of the animals – and this is only what they published. Because of the massive lack of transparency of the project, it’s not clear what they are still hiding.

So, big problems are obvious and Sea Life Trust was warned before that it is not going to be as easy as they thought. The company simply didn’t listen and apparently prefers to risk the lives of these animals in a greenwashing campaign instead of giving them in experienced human care where the animals have a chance to live a life appropriate for their species and be secure and healthy.

The animal rights industry doesn’t really care

If all of this would have happened in a zoo, aquarium, or dolphinarium, the animal rights industry would have used all of that massively against these institutions. During the last months, they stayed pretty silent. The industry is not really reporting about the project anymore and rarely anything appears in media. The big problems there are tried to be hidden away.

Now, animal rights activists seem to not care anymore. The installation is far too small for belugas, there is a big infection probably because of bad water quality, and there is an unexplained injury in at least one of the animals. While wounds can happen in animal husbandry – maybe through an accident nobody can be blamed for – such injury immediately disqualifies for a move to worse water quality. The wound could be seen in a video from the facility about a month ago – why did the water quality diminish anyway?

All these questions aren’t asked by an industry that likes to act as if their members would care about animal welfare. They don’t care about the welfare of these two belugas.

The elephants in the room

The Orca Keiko paid for the failed release attempt with his life. | Photo: U.S. military or Department of Defense, License: public domain

The whole story of the infection raises more important questions: If the infection is that mild and easily treatable, why isn’t it possible to treat it in the “wonderful” environment of the “sanctuary” Do they expect problems in this “sanctuary” that can make it difficult to treat this mild infection? Maybe they foresee that the animals would eventually stop eating due to the transport? Do they expect a loss of control in the sanctuary or even difficulties to give medical care in the sanctuary?

In addition, how is this supposed to work in the future? This won’t be the last mild infection or health problem these animals will face in their lives – what is Sea Life going to do then? Catch the animals every time, put them back in the small holding facility for treatment, and then release them again because they are unable to do that in the net cages? This issue is well-known and a reason why the husbandry is really difficult in this kind of setting.

Animals in a net cage in the sea are massively exposed to pollution, bacteria, parasite, and more. An animal that lives its whole life in the sea even has problems to fight all these dangers for its health successfully. Animals that were not exposed to this adapt their immune system to the cleaner surroundings – just like every animal does. The readapting to a dirtier environment is really difficult and will cause more health issues much frequently than life in dolphinariums or other whale husbandries.

The special problem of the Beluga Whale Sanctuary is that the two belugas will not be able to readapt to their new surroundings because they originate from a completely different place on earth. In addition, the waters they have to adapt to is not in the usual distribution area of beluga whales. So, the health risks are completely uncalculatable.

The questions remain unanswered for years now and the belugas seem to have to pay the bill for that – just like Keiko did. He paid with his life for the incompetence of the animal rights industry to properly take animal welfare into consideration.

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