Why is Covid delaying freedom for two beluga whales?

The whales were put inside a landside facility in the winter and are still there due to adaptations to their sanctuary being delayed.

Two beluga whales that were released from captivity to an open water sanctuary cannot return to a new fresh water bay owing to coronavirus-related delays.

Last year, Little Grey and Little White embarked on an epic journey from an aquarium in Shanghai to Iceland, after being captured by Russian poachers when they were young.

According to Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, it was always the plan to put the whales back into an indoor landside facility during the winter months and then release the belugas back into the fresh water.

But a series of supply chain issues and the Coronavirus pandemic has meant that the significant adaptations to the sanctuary they intended to make means the whales will not be moving back into the bay until at least spring 2022.

Although both whales did well in the main bay, they adapted at different paces and Little White acclimatised at a slower pace.

From the time Little Grey and Little White spent in the bay last year, the data revealed differences in some of their behaviours and the pace in which each whale was adapting to changes in the natural environment.

Once work is completed, Little Grey and Little White will return to an intermediate habitat inside the fresh water bay.

Little Grey showed quicker adaptation to the main bay, surprising the care team with her adjustment to new things like rain, wind, fish, and sea birds in the bay.

Little White adapted at a slower pace and had a greater need for support from the animal care team, particularly around the changing environment.

The transition from care pool to the bay was a more significant step for Little White than the group originally envisaged.

The bay as it currently looks.

The experts decided to create an intermediate habitat within the bay to help bring about a safe and successful transition for the whales from the sea care pools to the main bay.

Audrey Padgett, General Manager of Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, says the new 160-metre bay will allow Little White to acclimatise at a slower and safer pace.

She said: "We're going to help Little White adapt by building a new intermediate habitat out in the bay.

"It gives her and other future belugas a middle step in getting used to a controlled indoor environment and then used to all the changes in an outdoor one such as daylight and changing tides."She will have a bigger space to explore than the existing sea care pools but a space that our staff can support her in as she gets used to that new variety of change."

General Manager of Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, Audrey Padgett, explains why the intermediate habitat must be built

However, the supplies for the new habitat have been delayed. Ms Padgett says the hold up is because supplies have been unable to reach the island.

She said: "Covid has made this very difficult for us, we are already in a remote place off the south coast of Iceland.

"The pandemic has impacted getting critical supplies here and scheduling works.

"As of last Friday, we went back to enforced gathering restrictions and mask wearing, so Covid is definitely having an impact on the timing that we can do things and preventing us from scheduling these works."

The whales are being monitored 24/7 by staff inside the landside facility.

But Ms Padgett is hopeful that the belugas will be back in the open water sanctuary by next spring.

"We would like it to be completed this summer before going into the winter season so that we can get the whales back out to the sea sanctuary as early as possible in spring of 2022," she said.

"As soon as those works are completed and we have a window of good weather, we are going to move them back out to that facility."

Every day the whales' care team evaluates behavioural data of their participation in training session with environmental enrichment, nutritional intake, and general time allocation.

According to Ms. Padgett both whales differ in their behaviours.

This data, along with regular medical give an outline of the overall health and welfare of each whale during the acclimatisation process.

Ms Padgett said the work they are doing will enable more belugas to be rescued in future.

She said: "As a world first project, it is vital for the long-term success of the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary and other sanctuaries like it in the future.

"It is vital that we conduct research which helps us to understand the behaviours of Little Grey and Little White's transition into an open water sea sanctuary."