An artist’s impression of the Intermediate Habitat (Sea Life Trust)
PA Media - SEA LIFE Trust
Two rehabilitated beluga whales will be helped to settle into their new open-water home by a world-first floating habitat.
The structure, which was specially designed and made for the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, was dragged on a 16-hour journey across 48 miles by a tugboat to the island of Heimaey, off the coast of Iceland.
It marks the latest step in the reintroduction to open water of the two belugas, nicknamed Little Grey and Little White, who were previously performing whales in indoor captivity in China before being rehomed by the Sea Life Trust.
The pair were first brought to their new sanctuary home in Klettsvik Bay in 2020, nearly 10 years after they last swam in ocean water, before being taken back to a care facility.
The new Intermediate Habitat structure, which has a diameter of 50 metres and weighs nearly 17 tonnes, will help the pair acclimatise to the sanctuary.
Graham McGrath, head of the Sea Life Trust, said: “It was an epic sight to witness the Intermediate Habitat being pulled into the harbour by the island’s tugboat for the first time.
“As a world-first project, our teams are carrying out pioneering research which helps us to understand the behaviours of Little Grey and Little White’s transition into the wider bay.
“Once this halo-like structure has been fully installed, it will play a vital role in the long-term success of the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary and other sanctuaries like it in the future.”
The whales were first transported to Klettsvik Bay in 2020 (Aaron Chown/PA)PA Wire/PA Images - Aaron Chown
Welfare data showed Little White in particular was struggling to adapt to some elements of the new environment during the months they spent there in 2020.
The new structure was therefore designed in consultation with the whales’ welfare team and veterinary experts to help the whales acclimatise to the conditions of open water.
It will give the animals access to the sea floor, allowing them to explore the flora and fauna, and give them a gradual introduction to the larger sanctuary home.
The whales were initially supposed to be taken back to the bay last year, but issues relating to supply chains and the coronavirus pandemic meant changes to the environment were not able to be completed in time.