Iceland is home to the world's first open-water sanctuary for beluga whales in a groundbreaking global marine welfare project.

In a mammoth operation that has been six years in the making, conservation charity Sea Life Trust are now in the final stages of transferring two 12-year-old female beluga whales, named Little White and Little Grey, from captivity in Changfeng Ocean World, Shanghai to an open-water refuge in Iceland's Westman Islands. The whales arrived in a sea sanctuary care area in Iceland on August 7 and are acclimatising to their new natural environment before their final release into the wider sanctuary off the south coast of the country.

The Sea Life Trust team transfer Little Gray one of two beluga whales (Little Grey and Little White) from a lorry to a tugboat, from the landside care pool, to their bayside care pool
The Sea Life Trust team transfer Little Gray one of two beluga whales (Little Grey and Little White) from a lorry to a tugboat, from the landside care pool, to their bayside care pool for a short period ©Aaron Chown/PA Wire/Sea Life Trust

"We’re absolutely delighted to be able to share the news that Little Grey and Little White are safely in their sea sanctuary care pools and are just one step away from being released into their open water home," said Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust. "Following extensive planning and rehearsals, the first stage of their release back to the ocean was as smooth as we had hoped and planned for. We are carefully monitoring Little Grey and Little White with our expert care team and veterinarians and hope to announce their final release very soon."

The Sea Life Trust team celebrate the successful transfer of the beluga whales
The Sea Life Trust team celebrate the successful transfer of Little Grey and Little White ©Aaron Chown/PA Wire/Sea Life Trust

Little White and Little Grey traveled by land, sea and even air with airline carrier Cargolux transporting the whales on a specially branded Boeing 747-400ERF freighter. The whales were accompanied by around-the-clock care as they made their journey to their new home. "This is a world-first marine welfare project," a Sea Life Trust spokesperson told Lonely Planet. "The whales' health and wellbeing is a project priority."

This is the first time the beluga whales have been in the sea since they were taken from a whale research center in 2011 and will now be assessed 24/7 as they adjust to their new ocean environment. Thankfully, the team said, they are healthy and feeding well.

Sea Life Trust is working in partnership with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to rehabilitate captive cetaceans such as whales and dolphins. According to Sea Life Trust, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary is one of the biggest developments in captive whale and dolphin care and protection in decades and the first of its kind to be created for cetaceans.

The sanctuary on the island of Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands, is located on Klettsvik Bay – a large natural sea inlet where Little White and Little Grey will be able to enjoy an enhanced quality of life closer to their natural Arctic habitat.

Travel News - Little White and Little Grey
Little Grey and Little White are moving to the world's first open-water sanctuary for beluga whales ©Aaron Chown/PA Wire/Sea Life Trust

The Beluga Whale Sanctuary also includes a puffin hospital where puffin chicks are monitored and researched. There's a visitor and education centre which is open to the public for an entrance fee. Visitors will soon have the opportunity to go out to the bay in small numbers on carefully managed boat trips - with minimal disturbance to the whales - to catch a glimpse of Little Grey and Little White in their new habitat.

This article was first published on May 14, 2019 and updated on August 10, 2020.

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This article was first published May 2019 and updated August 2020

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