Five years ago, in June 2012, the Georgia Aquarium quietly filed an application for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia into the United States.
The plan was to keep some of the whales for themselves and distribute the rest among various other marine parks and aquariums in the U.S. With only 31 belugas (also known as white whales) still alive in captivity in the U.S. at that time, the display facilities were anxious to replenish their stocks of these gentle creatures.
Animal protection groups were equally anxious to stop them.
The Georgia Aquarium had arranged to have the whales captured from the Sea of Okhotsk on Russia’s west coast, and have them shipped to the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station, four thousand miles away, on the Russian Black Sea coast. While the belugas were being held there, the aquarium would seek a permit to bring them to the United States.
Beluga whales are sweet-natured mammals. They also look cute, largely because of their widely spaced eyes and the bump on their forehead.
Thanks to the efforts of the animal protection community and the testimony of scientists, the permit was eventually denied. But while this was certainly good news in that it closed one door to importing whales for display, for the belugas themselves, once they’d been captured, there was never going to be a good outcome. Their actual fate was never made public, but most likely the contractors who had procured them for the Georgia Aquarium ended up selling the ones who didn’t die at the research station to marine circuses in China or some other country.
Beluga whales are sweet-natured mammals. They also look cute, largely because of their widely spaced eyes and the bump on their forehead, known as the melon, a bioacoustic “lens” that helps them to focus the sounds they use in echolocation.
Their natural homes are the oceans of the Arctic and sub-Arctic, where they travel in extended families of hundreds, sometimes up to a thousand. Much of the time, these travels take place under the ice. (Their amazing echolocation enables them to locate pockets of air and holes in the ice so they can come to the surface to breathe.)
Although there are beluga populations in U.S. waters, from whom aquariums and marine parks could theoretically capture individuals, many of these populations are now listed as endangered and are therefore protected from capture. Regardless, the captivity industry is leery of a potential public relations nightmare if people were to see video of these gentle creatures being wrestled from their families. As you can see, it’s not a pretty picture:
Better, then, as the captivity industry concluded in 2012, to get them from some faraway land where regulations and media interest are largely nonexistent.
Today, there are 28 belugas still on display in concrete tanks at aquariums and marine parks in the United States. And since the door is still closed to importing more, these facilities have been doing all they can to breed the belugas they still have. The results have been mixed. Infant mortality rate is high, largely due to the stress and inexperience of beluga mothers. (In the wild, newborns are surrounded by their families, and aunts and grandmothers play an active role in raising the young.)
But while belugas are in short supply at U.S. aquariums, their tanks can barely contain them in Canada. Marineland has 52 belugas, many of whom were captured in Russia and came through the same channels that the Georgia Aquarium was pursuing. Many are in declining health and there have been many deaths.
(Header photo: Delphinapterus_leucas_Bubble_Ring By Pagemoral – Wikimedia commons)