In Spring 2019, two female beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, became residents of the world’s first beluga whale sanctuary in a ground-breaking marine and animal welfare project led by the Sea Life Trust in partnership with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).
Little Grey and Little White were caught from the wild in Russia when they were two years old and kept at the Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in China for seven years. When Merlin Entertainment, a UK-based company bought the aquarium in 2012, they began an extensive search to find the ideal new home for Little Grey and Little White because they have a long-standing philosophy against keeping cetaceans such as whales and dolphins in captivity for the use of public entertainment.
A sanctuary was created at Klettsvik Bay, which lies on the island of Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, located off the southern coast of Iceland – a large natural sea inlet and beautifully secluded coastal area, which measures nearly 32,000 sqm and up to 10m deep; ideal for the belugas to swim, explore and dive. Little Grey and Little White travelled 6,000 miles by road, air and water from China to Iceland in Spring 2019 and were installed in the sanctuary’s landside care and quarantine pool. There they have been closely monitored and acclimatised to the new surroundings before they are released into the bay, where they will be able to enjoy an enhanced quality of life in an environment closer to their natural Arctic habitat.
I decided to talk to Little Grey and Little White a few days ago, whilst they were waiting to be released into the bay after following their story on Twitter and Facebook. I approach them both gently and with respect, explain who I am and what I do and the conversation unfolds between us through intuition alone:
LITTLE GREY is young at heart, cheeky and playful, energetic, wide-open, wide-eyed, curious, impressionable. loyal, clever and adaptable.
LA: Hello Little Grey. How are things there with you right now?
LG: There is rain right now and it is on me and I love it. I love new things. I am having a lot of attention from ‘peace-filled’ people here, they say, “We want to see you have the best life we can give you.” I feel playful right now, I have a new spark. There are great places in the world and I want to see them! I feel how people are helping us, the love goes on and on. There are no barriers to loving everyone back again. It goes on and on. People used to love us in a powerless way but now they love us with action. I want to talk about the world! I have always been as big as the ocean, I have always felt it as a memory because I have not always been in it. I can feel its ripples now. It is alive. My mother is out there somewhere I know, I can feel the memory of her resonating everywhere, I did not feel that back in the big tank. I can feel the weather too. I am learning to feel it through my skin again. I am sad for what could have been, I wanted children and I wanted the closeness of the pod with my mother and grandmother, sisters, brothers and cousins. All of us together.
LA: How is your sister, Little White?
LG: She is not my sister but my cousin. Little White is not as confident as me, sometimes I get impatient with her and boisterous, it is because we had been so close in that space for so long. I’d like to be a mother one day, sometimes Little White acts like my daughter and I help her. She is not so certain of things sometimes and so I help her. We play a lot of games and that helps us to take our mind off things. We are well cared for but no one can really care for our need to be free. I am not sure how to be wild again, I don’t really know what that means. It is a distant memory.
LA: Do you know what is happening to you?
LG: I can sense that something is going to happen.
[We have a little chat about what is going to happen and Little Grey is excited.]
LA: How about the people you are with right now?
LG: One person I like very much is a man. We connect and he has very nice thoughts about me even when he is at home. There are some nice women here too. More people come and go. I’ve been looked at a lot and had lots of tests. It was safe in the big tank but I didn’t know much, only about humans. Now I am finding out more. It is quieter here, I can see the white sun on top of the water coming up and going down, it’s fresh and it’s cold.
LA: What about the journey to this place?
LG: I knew Little White was with me. We had lots of people whispering to us, saying it was going to be okay. There was pressure on me inside my head. I felt very strange for a while and I was wondering what next? What next? There were times when I felt very tired and ill but I felt the love and attention of all the people so it buoyed me up and kept me going. Man makes mechanical things to help us.
LA: How are you feeling now?
LG: My energy was a little strange for a while but I’m better now. The taste of this water is different. I wanted to be good for everyone, I wanted to do what I was told, I did everything they told me to do. Sometimes I was unsure what they wanted. I love to see people everyday and I know that is what makes them happy. I always want to know why people are here, I look so closely at them. People are all different shapes and sizes. Some are very long and some are short. Like in a pod, we fly in the water. They touch us and I like to feel their hands on me.
LA: Are you looking forward to going out into the ocean?
LG: I know what is out there, I have not forgotten. I will look at every crevice and hole and turn over every crab and clam and seaweed and I want to see jellyfish again. There are boats out there, I can feel the sound in the water. Birds come to see what is going on and I can touch them if I am quiet and careful. The water mixes with the sky and it fills my mouth up. I see stars and flashing lights in the night that go under the water. I hear some strange things but I can still sleep. We will slowly get further and further away!
LA: Will you hunt fish?
LG: I am not sure how to do this. Usually fish are put into my mouth but I do love to chase and turn things over. SMILING = FISH. I smile A LOT.
LA: What was life like in the aquarium?
LG: It was full of noise and movement and we worked hard. Music and people shouting and clapping. It is quieter now. I can hear birds and the waves. It was stormy in the tank with people’s voices and movement but I know real storms will come here. I remember them from before. When I was with my mother the water went on forever, and we went on forever and there were stars and places to go. When we were in the sea, we could feel everything that went on around us – everything in the whole ocean. We can see with the whole of our bodies. Little White and I will explore everything again.
LA: Do you have anything to say to us about your life?
LG: I am half human now. Thank you for letting me experience all I have. Thank you for letting me experience people, hairy things, dry things, bright and shiny things, things from your world. Thank you for giving me the chance to experience wildness again and experience other wild creatures. I am getting wiser and I can tell the other water creatures what humans are like and their world is like. I can spread the word about how humans care and love and some are passionate. I am a human whale and I am in between worlds. It is good to swim and not stop. I feel strong. I feel ready to go.
LITTLE WHITE is not so confident as Little Grey, she is shyer, holds back more until she gets to know you. She is peaceful, more delicate, sensitive, she suffered from being separated from her mother and I feel the sadness that is still inside her. She is often second in line. She is very observant and interested in the details of what is going on around her. Her body feels more marked and she has a notch on her fin. She is healthy. I sense that she tires more easily. She feels protected in the care pool. She is more concerned about the ‘dangers’ of outside world than Little Grey.
LA: Hello Little White, how are you today?
LW: I am fine. It is nice here. When I am anxious, the feeling of the sea around me makes me calmer again, it holds me safe. People look at me very closely in the eye and they stroke me and that is also nice. There is a bird that comes in the morning and I have made friends with it, although he is not too sure about us. Every morning we wait at the same place for our friends to come and see us. They listen to our hearts a lot and that shows us that they love us, they are concerned for us. I can hear their hearts too. I don’t want them to leave.
LA: What about Little Grey?
LW: Little Grey helps and protects me when I am unsure and when I cannot cope. We have helped each other through the hard times. Most days are OK though. I am older now. We have each other and that makes it OK. She tells me when it is time to do things. There is a link between us that can never be broken. We explore new things together. I ‘talk’ to Little Grey in our own language, she makes jokes sometimes and we talk about the outside and share memories of what it used to be like when we were young.
LA: Tell me about the place you were in before.
LW: There was a tall grey plastic bin with fish in, also a net bag with toys. People had wellies on. I saw a lot of wellies. We had games to play. There were bright metal things that dangled down in the water and orange floats attached to lines to push around. The people at the tank were younger than the people here now, they were fun and played with us, some of them were in love with each other, some of them were not sure of each other. The echoes bounced around the tank in a strange way and up and down like they were bouncing on ice shelves. Here, the echoes do not bounce. The energy of the people is ‘older’ here. They talk more with each other. We still have games to play and puzzles to solve; boxes with things inside. They want us to learn and explore for ourselves now. They are proud of us.
LA: Do you remember the Sea?
LW: I did not know what was happening when we were taken away and I was very scared. I wanted my mother. I am not sure why I was taken, I am not sure why the people did what they did to us. Sometimes I try to think about the reasons but I don’t know the answer. Everyone needs to be in a place of calm near to real water. Real water heals. The ocean is our mother and our home. We must never forget where we have come from. The ocean is inside me and I have never forgotten it. Even after all these years, it still swims inside me.
Then Little White turns her conversation with me away from words towards feelings; she is a little tired now. She loves female energy and is drawn to women. She feels bittersweet about what is happening and thinks about the past a lot. She also feels that she is getting older, that she spent a lot of her life in the aquarium. She is quite happy to follow the lead of Little Grey and can get boisterous with her when they start to play in a safe environment. She feels the cold more than Little Grey. I pick up a feeling of impatience now, she knows that something is coming and that the days are building up to an event, she is very sensitive and intelligent but cannot quite suss out what is going on.
I spend some more time talking to both of them about what is going to happen. They understand and they are excited. They think that they are having the best of both worlds as they love humans, yet they also want to be out in the wilds of the bay more than ever.
Thank you so much both Little Grey and Little White for sharing some of your life with me at this momentous time in your lives, I wish you all the best in your new home and I will check back in with you when you are safely out in the wilds of the bay!
*After writing this post and before publishing it, I check in with the belugas again, explaining that I am going to post our conversation up where other people can read it and comment on it. Little White expresses a desire that I remove some of the information from my conversation with her, which I have done. As I was finishing this post, it was good to see an update on Facebook showing the whales enjoying the rain for the first time since they were taken from the wild.
UPDATE: on 28th September 2020 Little White and Little Grey were released into Klettsvik Bay, which will be their home for the rest of their lives. The SeaLife centre hopes to bring up to 11 more beluga whales rescued from aquaria all around the world to this sanctuary to join Little White and Little Grey.
photo ©SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary