One of Merlin Entertainments’ founding principles is that the company will not keep any cetaceans in its attractions for entertainment purposes, so when two young beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, came into the company’s hands in 2012, Merlin CEO, Nick Varney, charged Sea Life’s chief ambassador, James Burleigh, with the task of creating a home for them which was as close to the wild as possible.
What followed was a mission of epic proportions. It was incredibly costly – the price will not be revealed or recouped – but Burleigh says that everyone at Merlin Entertainments, from the top down, was fully behind the campaign, because it was the morally right thing to do.
Many from outside the company became equally invested in the project’s success. Comedian, John Bishop, became part of the team through his role presenting an ITV documentary about the project, called John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue, and as a result fell in love with these mesmerising animals.
The story started nine years ago when Merlin acquired Living and Leisure Australia, owner of Shanghai Changfeng Ocean World, which ran a beluga whale show. Little Grey and Little White were only six years old at the time and as they can live to be 40- or 50-years-old, much of their life was still ahead of them.
Re-release into the wild wasn’t an option, as they wouldn’t have the skills to survive, so the challenge was to find a location which would allow them to be as free as possible and replicate their natural habitat.
“We needed very cold waters, in a bay which could be netted off to create a sea pen and in a place with the right infrastructure,” explains Burleigh. “We also needed unequivocal support locally and nationally. Russia would have been ideal from an environmental point of view, as that is where they come from, but was ruled out as the landscape and existing infrastructure was unsuitable.”
After a comprehensive scout around the planet, Klettsvik Bay on Heimaey Island in southern Iceland was chosen, which was where Keiko the Orca from the Free Willy films was kept briefly after being retired. While a very small amount of whaling remains in Iceland, whale watching trips are fuelling a booming tourism industry and now millions of inbound tourists seek out whales as a source of wonder and engagement, which sits particularly well with the fact that the country is now proud to boast the world’s first cetacean sanctuary.
Following an agreement with the municipality of the Westman Islands, the space was secured for a nominal rent. “It benefits the island by making it an iconic destination,” says Burleigh. “We also relocated a local aquarium and sprinkled some Sea Life pixie dust on it to create a small attraction, which will be a fundraiser for the Sea Life Trust.”
Burleigh says this wouldn’t be a site Merlin would usually consider for an attraction. It has a very short season and has to close in the winter, because the enjoyable 30-minute ferry ride can’t operate – the route is replaced by a choppy three hour journey from a different port in the winter months.
The island has 4,000 residents and just 100,000 tourists a year. “We would never normally build an attraction in such a place, but there is also a volcano and volcano museum, the largest puffin colony in Europe, a good golf course and walks, so with the addition of the sanctuary, it’s likely to get more tourism,” he says.
“Added to this, the local people are amazing. They are very resourceful and they have so much expertise – whether it’s divers or people to manufacture the nets we found everything we needed locally.”
Two years ago I interviewed Burleigh about the development (Attractions Management Q1 2019) and, with the sanctuary secured, the project seemed to be on the home straight. The move-in date was planned for June 2019, with release into the bay for the whales scheduled for August the same year. In reality it was nowhere near as simple.
The first move-in date was called off because the weather conditions in Klettsvik Bay meant the ferry wasn’t able to run, so because of a hitch with the final nine miles, the whole mission had to be postponed.
“That’s when I had the sweatiest palms and had to have the most difficult conversation of the whole project,” Burleigh says. “Cargolux had very kindly donated the flight – which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds – and it had already taken off when I had to break the news they had to go back.
“Having asked them to donate one flight, I then had to ask if they would donate a second one. The CEO is a brilliant guy and he did agree, but he made it very clear that if it happened again I would be summoned to Luxembourg!”
The second attempt was nudged forward by two months. Each move date involved a massive amount of organisation, including specialists being assembled from all over the world.
Bespoke transportation slings were crafted to fit the whales, so their pectoral fins would be in the right place. They were loaded into an articulated lorry to cross Shanghai and once they got to the airport, there was a nail-biting wait for a customs officer to arrive to sign the cargo off, causing the plane to miss its original take-off slot.
Burleigh says once again they had a narrow window with the weather, meaning they left on the last possible day.
Cargolux had to negotiate with Russia for a low flight path to avoid changes in air pressure. The whales had iced water pumped onto them throughout the journey to keep them cool, and were constantly monitored for signs of distress. All in all, the journey from Shanghai to the new custom-built care pool on Heimaey Island took almost 40 hours, including two lorry rides, one flight and a ferry.
The team was euphoric at getting the whales to their new home, but because the move date had been delayed, there wasn’t enough time to get them accustomed to the ocean before the harsh winter of 2019/20 set in, so the release date into the bay was delayed until April 2020. “ We asked ourselves, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’” Says Burleigh.
“Then in April there was the small matter of a global pandemic, with Iceland going into lockdown along with most of Europe,” he says. “The pandemic caused problems in so many ways, even when lockdown was lifted. There were hardly any flights and they were all expensive. With the quarantining it meant each trip took at least 10 days. It caused disruption in the wider business world, creating difficulties with fundraising, and impacted tourism to the new visitor centre on the island.”
So the release date into the bay was pushed back again, to June 2020. Once again the team and cameras were assembled for the big day, only to discover at the last moment that the whales had minor bacterial stomach infections and would need to stay in the care pool for a few more weeks.
Finally, amid tears and celebrations, they were released into the sea in August 2020 and for the first time in 12 years Little Grey and Little White felt the sun and rain on their backs and saw puffins and octopus. Before being allowed full run of the bay they had to be trained to come back to the trainers, led by specialist curator, Jessica Whitton, who will monitor their health for the rest of their lives.
A happy ending
Finally, they were let out into the wider bay in September 2020. At 32,000sq m, their new living quarters are 35 times bigger than the space they’d been used to, with a depth of more than 10m. As the release date had been delayed, they didn’t have time to acclimatise to the sea sufficiently to cope with the winter of 2020/21, so were brought temporarily back into the care pool for a second time.
“Pragmatism has been the key word,” says Burleigh about the arduous process. “Each time we came up against a hurdle we had to work out how to get over or go around it. There was no precedent and we did make mistakes. But now we have a blueprint, so other operators can approach us if they want to do something similar.”
He points out that this project isn’t just about Little Grey and Little White. “There are 300 belugas and 3,000 cetaceans in captivity and we would definitely like to welcome more,” he says. “This sanctuary could house 10 and we also have the facility to move the nets and enlarge the enclosure.”
Burleigh says the whales are thriving. They’ve started catching fish and bringing them back to their trainers – sometimes they eat them rather than hand them over, which shows a return to their natural behaviour.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team are still in recovery mode: “We had months of disturbed sleep due to the stress and the long Icelandic days,” says Burleigh. “All the same, if someone rang tomorrow about rehoming a cetacean, I would definitely talk to them! It’s been a privilege to be able to work on this. I’m very thankful for the opportunity and very proud of what we’ve achieved as a team.”