A pair of beluga whales that previously lived at an aquarium in China will help populate a sanctuary in Iceland for formerly captive marine mammals.
Conservationists celebrated when a plane carrying the whales, named Little Grey and Little White after the colours of their skin, touched down at Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport.
“The whales did well on the flight and are in good shape,” logistic expert Sigurjon Sigurdsson said after the 12-year-old females landed.
The whales will be the first aquatic animals to inhabit the sanctuary for cetaceans off Iceland’s southern coast.
Their home will be a 32,000-square-metre sea pen at a pristine creek called Klettsvik, accessible by whale-watching boats.
After an 11-hour flight, the pair’s tank was loaded onto a truck for a drive to a harbour and the last leg of their journey, a boat ride to the Westman Islands archipelago.
There, they are set to stay in a specially designed indoor pool for 40 days while caretakers increase their food intake to build up extra blubber for heat insulation.
Little White and Little Grey were captured in Russian waters and sold to Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai some 10 years ago.
Beluga whales are native to the Arctic Ocean, not the North Atlantic surrounding Iceland.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that 135,000 mature Beluga whales live in Arctic waters.
The release of Little Grey and Little White reflects a worldwide movement against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.
The mission to relocate them began when Changfeng Ocean World was acquired by Merlin Entertainment, a British corporation that owns Legoland and other theme parks.
The company, which has a policy against captive whales and dolphins, teamed up with the wildlife fund Sea Life Trust to spearhead the effort.
“We are sad to see them leave but we understand that they come from nature,” Iker Wang, head trainer at Chengfeng aquarium, said, in a press statement.