The monumental task of moving whales across borders

The complex—and controversial—transfer of five belugas from Canada to the U.S. again raises the debate of whether whales should be kept in captivity at all.

By Amy Thomas
Photographs By Jennifer Hayes
Published 20 May 2021, 10:46 BST
beluga whale 1

A crane lifts Kharabali, a beluga whale, out of a pool at Marineland. In a complex, cross-border operation, she and four other belugas were transported from the Ontario aquatic park to Mystic Aquarium, in Connecticut.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

A dusty grey C-130 rolled to a stop just as the sun was going down over the tarmac of the Air National Guard Station at the Groton-New London Airport in Connecticut on Friday. The plane wasn’t carrying its usual haul of utility helicopters or jeeps. Instead, when the rear cargo door yawned opened, it was three beluga whales from Marineland, an aquatic park in Ontario, Canada, that were sitting aboard, in special water-filled transport containers.

Kharabali, Havana and Jetta, three females, were loaded onto flatbed trucks and driven seven miles east on I-95 to Mystic Aquarium in southeast Connecticut. There, a crane gently lowered them, one by one, into the medical pool, a separate but connected body of water within the aquarium’s 750,000-gallon beluga pool, called Arctic Coast. They were followed by Havok and Sahara, a male and female, nine hours later, completing the highly anticipated, and contested, transfer that was years in the making.

The five whales, ages seven to 12, will soon meet the aquarium’s other three belugas and will eventually go on display to the public.

The wheels for this deal started turning about a decade ago when Mystic Aquarium started discussions with Marineland about acquiring some of the park’s 50-some beluga whales. Mystic has a 40-year-old beluga research program, and scientists there say they’ve been eager to expand it, particularly in light of the intensifying effects of climate change and the declining population of beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

At Marineland, staff secure a whale into a specially fitted sling so a crane can lift it into a transport container for the 14-hour journey.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

As the beluga is lifted from the pool, staff check to ensure it’s secure.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

“We’ve been able to achieve some pretty amazing things with the three whales that we have at Mystic Aquarium now, but we needed to ensure there was a population of whales that we would have into the future for this important research,” says Allison Tuttle, Mystic Aquarium’s chief zoological officer. She says the aquarium’s research projects are built around priorities listed in the National Marine Fisheries Services’ recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Marineland, for its part, has been the subject of many animal welfare investigations, complaints, and protests since as far back as the 1980s, and now, it’s at a crossroads: In 2018, its founder John Holer passed away, leaving the thousand-acre facility to his widow Marie. Closed for most of 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19 and with nearly 4,000 animals to care for, including the belugas, an orca, walruses, and dolphins, it’s financially vulnerable.

“We made a collective decision that for the purposes of research, to reduce the population [of belugas] at Marineland, and to assist in all our various programs, that we would transfer five whales to Mystic,” says Andrew Burns, counsel to Marie Holer and Marineland. Neither Marineland nor Mystic Aquarium would say whether Mystic paid for the whales, but Burns conceded that “generally we’re cooperatively working together financially in aid of that program.”

Beluga whale Jetta is secured in her transport container on the back of a flatbed truck for the drive from Marineland to the airport.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

The anticipation was palpable at the airport and, later at the aquarium, with veterinarians, researchers and animal care experts working to ensure a smooth final leg of the transfer, along with Stephen Coan, Mystic Aquarium’s president and CEO. Though Tuttle, who helped organise the move, remained behind at Marineland, she also expressed excitement. “I am a little tired…but extremely inspired by this move and the conservation research it enables us to perform.”

A contested transfer

Keeping cetaceans—the group of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises—in captivity is a fraught issue. Aquariums and research facilities say that studying them in captivity helps humans protect them in the wild and that displaying them to the public allows people to connect with and care about them. Animal rights advocates, however, say they’re too intelligent and social to be kept in captivity, and that their instinctual needs to feed and migrate over long distances mean that the ocean is the only place they can thrive.

In 2019, Canada banned breeding and keeping cetaceans in captivity but grandfathered in those already held. The U.S. has no such laws. In recent months, multiple animal welfare and animal rights groups unsuccessfully challenged the transfer in both the U.S. and Canada, arguing that it undermines Canada’s law and sets a precedent that could allow Marineland’s other whales to be transferred to countries with weaker animal welfare laws. Some whale experts also have said they’re worried that breaking up their social relationships could negatively affect their wellbeing.

At Hamilton International Airport in Ontario, staff check on Jetta before she’s transferred onto the plane.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

Kharabali, in her crate, is loaded onto the C-130 airplane for the flight to Connecticut.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

Last Chance for Animals, a nonprofit animal rights organisation, is one such group. “A big part of it is removing the whales from protection of the Canadian law,” says Miranda Desa, Canadian counsel for the group. “Once they’re removed, they’ll be vulnerable to breeding, which would perpetuate the cycle of captivity.” (Mystic Aquarium’s import permit from the U.S. government prohibits breeding for five years, and the aquarium can apply for permission to breed after that. Officials at Mystic Aquarium have not commented on its intentions.) 

“We stand by what we’re doing,” says Mystic Aquarium’s Tracy Romano, the facility’s chief scientist. “Our mission is research, education, and conservation. We know we’re doing the right thing for the five animals and the species as a whole.”

With this move, there are now 38 beluga whales in captivity at four different locations in the U.S., and more than 300 estimated in captivity worldwide. In the wild, there are about 136,000 belugas, living in the Arctic of Canada, the U.S., Russia, Greenland, and Norway.

Globally, beluga whales are not threatened with extinction, though some individual populations are precariously low. Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga whale population, for example, has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1979, from about 1,300 whales to roughly 279 whales in 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

A device collects breath samples from the whale’s blowhole just before it’s transferred into the medical pool at Mystic Aquarium for observation.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

Like many Arctic marine mammals, belugas are dependent on sea ice, which is rapidly disappearing because of climate change. Its loss makes belugas more vulnerable to predators like orcas, and to increased human activity like shipping traffic, which takes advantage of the absence of ice and can lead to strikes, ocean noise that disturbs their behaviour, and pollution.

“Troopers”

Under any circumstances, moving five whales nearly 500 miles across an international border would be a massive logistical undertaking. Given the pandemic, it was especially so. In addition to securing the plane to transport the mammals—which weigh between 350kg and 450kg each—the organisers had pre-arrange border crossings, customs, and immigration. But more than the bureaucracy, the focus was on how to move them safely, Tuttle says.

The whales are conditioned to swim onto stretchers, customised to their length and size, and outfitted with holes for their pectoral fins, Tuttle says. These act like seat belts, keeping them secure within transport containers. The whales were then floated in salt water to about the middle of the head, so their blowholes are clear and they don’t feel the pressure of their body weight. The containers were their shelter as they were moved between the flatbed trucks and aircraft, where the temperature was set to 55 degrees for their comfort. Veterinarians and animal transport experts travelled with of them to monitor their breathing and overall health.

Beluga whales are lowered into the medical pool at Mystic Aquarium on May 14 2021. Trained teams and veterinarians are in place as a crane gently lowers each whale in a sling into the shallow pool where they are observed before they are released into a larger pool with with the other relocated belugas.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

After spending some time in the medical pool for observation, the beluga will be released into a larger pool with the other new arrivals.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

When the plane landed at the Connecticut airport, Customs and Border Protection agents and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors verified the permits were in order before the whales made the final drive to the aquarium.

From tank to tank, the journey took about 14 hours, says Jen Flower, Mystic Aquarium’s chief veterinarian who accompanied both sets of whales on the flight. They were “troopers,” she says. “They were talking to each other throughout the flight.”

Belugas’ future

Mystic Aquarium’s Tuttle says there are seven research studies planned for the belugas, including examining their immune response to environmental stressors as well as their physiological responses to sound. “All the research is really designed to look at the health of the whales, how they respond to various things such as manmade stressors,” she says.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that Marie Holer plans to sell Marineland, but her lawyer and Marineland representatives have declined to clarify. Burns, her lawyer, says she is “planning for the future and working towards an appropriate transition that would secure the marine mammal program.”

The Canadian law aimed at phasing out cetacean captivity could be a bellwether for the U.S., some animal welfare experts say. “It certainly should [be],” says Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and the founder of the Whale Sanctuary Project, which plans to open its new seaside Nova Scotia sanctuary for orcas and belugas by the end of 2022.

The five belugas from Marineland swim in a pool at Mystic Aquarium.

Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

But with the sheer number of aquariums and marine entertainment parks in the U.S., she says she’s not optimistic. “Whether or not something like that can be brought to the table….I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.”

Though controversial, the transfer of these five belugas signals a growing focus on the precarious situation of these animals, both in the wild and captivity.

Romano, Mystic Aquarium’s chief scientist, says she hopes that the transfer allows the aquarium to “provide belugas that are in need of a proper home…[with] individual medical care and attention” and the chance to “help their wild counterparts by participating in research.”

Camille Labchuck, a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, a Canadian animal advocacy organisation, says that with Canada’s ban on breeding, the U.S.’s decision not to allow these belugas to be bred in the near future, and the overall difficulty of breeding this species in captivity, “it’s likely that the belugas in captivity now will likely be the last generation of captive belugas in North America.”

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