Russia Takes First Steps To Releasing Orcas, Belugas From 'Whale Jail'

Nearly 100 whales are stuck in miserable holding pens after being captured for the aquarium trade.

Russian officials say experts will be evaluating dozens of captive whales with the hope of ultimately freeing them from holding pens that have been internationally dubbed “whale jail.”

The New York Times reported this week that Russia’s minister of natural resources, Dmitri N. Kobylkin, said the situation is unprecedented because of the number of animals ― 10 orcas and 87 belugas ― that need to be released.

An aerial view of the holding pens.
An aerial view of the holding pens.

Government officials plan to meet with a group of experts, including famed oceanographer and marine scientist Jean-Michel Cousteau, to figure out the best course of action, according to the BBC.

The whales were captured in the summer of 2018 by companies intending to sell them to aquariums and marine parks, including facilities in China. Those companies brought the whales to holding pens in Srednyaya Bay, near Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

But a criminal investigation ― sparked by drone footage of the pens published in October ― determined the animals had been caught illegally. The Russian government said in January it had seized custody of the whales, according to the Times.

Belugas in their holding pens in Srednyaya Bay.
Belugas in their holding pens in Srednyaya Bay.

National Geographic published a detailed report on the whales’ dire situation back in February.

In the meantime, the whales are distressed and in poor health. According to NatGeo’s February story, several orcas had skin lesions possibly caused by frostbite or bacteria in the water. A veterinarian said that the skin of “most of the orcas were “thickly seeded with various microorganisms,” which she believed could have been caused from food rotting in their pens.

The belugas ― including 15 young ones caught before being weaned ― were also not doing well, having to contend with the trauma of workers routinely smashing shovels into the ice above their heads in order to break it up and allow them to surface to breathe.

One of the orcas, or killer whales, trapped in what's been internationally dubbed "whale jail."
One of the orcas, or killer whales, trapped in what's been internationally dubbed "whale jail."

Though scientists and vets agree the animals are living in miserable conditions, there’s debate over what should happen to them. Some think that after medical assessment and treatment, the whales should be released as soon as possible near the location where they’re being held.

Others fear doing so could be a death sentence.

“They have never been in the places where they’re being kept in captivity,” marine mammal expert Grigory Tsidulko told CBC. “Right now, there’s not enough food for them where they’re being held.”

An alternative is for the whales to be transported back to the locations where they were originally captured, but sea ice makes it impractical to do that before summer. That means the whales will have to spend a longer time in the holding pens, and some of the younger belugas could grow too dependent on human care to ultimately be released.