How do you relocate two, one-ton beluga whales to the other side of the world?

This was the question facing whale conservation experts after the UK-owned entertainment company agreed to release the marine animals from Changfeng Ocean World Zoo, in Shanghai.

The two beluga whales had spent the majority of their lives in captivity as performing animals at the Chinese aquarium. Though born in the wild, they had spent the last decade as performing animal attractions.

The whales made their long journey on a big cargo to Iceland. Photo / Getty Images
The whales made their long journey on a big cargo to Iceland. Photo / Getty Images

As the stars of the Ocean World Zoo, the celebrity whales were involved in daily performances at the '1000m square-metre' White Whale Show Hall.

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Described by Travel China as the "largest performance hall in China", the space was considered far too small for the white Arctic pygmy whales.

Bought by Merlin Entertainments in 2012 – a UK entertainment business which also owns Legoland and the Madam Tussauds franchises – the company faced considerable international pressure from animal rights campaigners to rehome the performing whales.

Merlin's aquarium chain Sea Life had publicly declared its opposition to keeping whales in captivity as part of its Whales & Dolphins Campaign, saying: "No matter how spacious, no captive facility can ever provide such far-ranging, highly social and highly intelligent animals with the stimulation they need for a good quality of life."

Changfeng Ocean World Zoo: The beluga whales took part in daily 'shows' at the White Whale Hall. Photo/ Flickr, Kai Sun
Changfeng Ocean World Zoo: The beluga whales took part in daily 'shows' at the White Whale Hall. Photo/ Flickr, Kai Sun

However, last year Freedom for Animals called out the company for hypocrisy, claiming the performances continued in spite of their public opposition to the exploitation of performing.

Apologising, a spokesperson for the company said that Sea Life had been actively looking for a solution to rehome the whales since it bought the company, and it was committed to "completely cease or review 'shows'."

"Given Merlin's fast growth, we have at times acquired businesses which historically have included shows or displays which involve these creatures."

10,000km journey: It took 18 months to prepare the whales. Photo / Getty Images
10,000km journey: It took 18 months to prepare the whales. Photo / Getty Images

Rescuing the two beluga whales from captivity was just the beginning of this tale.

The next step involved moving the pair of beluga to a sanctuary 9656km away from Shanghai, on the Icelandic island of Heimaey.

Transported in special containers, they made their way by cargo plane, trucks and a ferry.

After an 11-hour flight, the pair were transported to the harbour for a 30-minute ferry ride to their new life in the Westman Islands. They will spend the next 40 days in a care pool, as they acclimatise and put on extra blubber for heat insulation.

"We have been working with Little White and Little Grey for the last 18 months to make sure that they will be prepared and ready for the long journey," said Andy Bool of the Sea Life Trust.

Sanctuary: Andy Bool of Sea Life Trust in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland. Photo / Getty Images
Sanctuary: Andy Bool of Sea Life Trust in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland. Photo / Getty Images

Speaking to the BBC, plans were also revealed for a visitor centre though the charity is wary of encouraging the refuge to develop as an attraction..

Klettsvik Bay is the world's first open water beluga sanctuary and a far more natural sub-Arctic environment.

The bay's first cetacean celebrity occupant was Keiko, from the film Free Willy. Keiko tragically died in 2003, just 18 months after being released into the wild.

Klettsvik Bay, on Heimaey Island, was once home to the film-star orca, Keiko. Photo / Getty Images
Klettsvik Bay, on Heimaey Island, was once home to the film-star orca, Keiko. Photo / Getty Images

The bay has since been sealed off, as it is expected the performing animals would not survive in the wild.

However, the 32 square-km inlet is far more generous than their previous enclosed home.

It is hoped the bay will become a home for other rescue belugas, where they can live out the remainder of their 60-80 year lifespan in a more natural environment.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation reports that around 3,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are held in tanks globally.

The Russian region is known for "whale jails" where orcas and beluga whales are available for purchase, according to AP. A beluga whale can sell for around US$150000 ($230000), and many find their way to popular sea-parks in China, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.