Hakai Magazine

beluga whale being brought into Mystic Aquarium on a stretcher
Five belugas arrived at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium in special stretchers. Photo courtesy of Mystic Aquarium

The Belugas Have Landed

With permits finally in place, a controversial cross-border transfer of five belugas between aquariums is complete.

Authored by

by Bethany Augliere

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More than two years after the initial request was made, five beluga whales have left their overcrowded home at Marineland, an amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and arrived at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. The move came about a month after Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) quietly approved the controversial permit for the whales’ export.

The five whales—Jetta, Havana, Kharabali, Havok, and Sahara; four females and one male—traveled from Ontario to Connecticut by airplane inside special stretchers that supported their bodies while in water-filled tanks. Then, they were driven by transport trucks to the aquarium, accompanied by a police escort, and eventually lowered into their new habitat using cranes while in their supportive slings. Three whales arrived on the evening of May 14, and the other two arrived the following morning.

Throughout the entire process, which took almost 22 hours, the whales were attended by marine mammal experts and veterinarians. More than 150 people were involved in the move, according to Mystic Aquarium.

The whales were selected for this journey based on their good health, as well as for their social compatibility and bonding both with each other, and potentially with the three other belugas already residing at Mystic Aquarium, says Allison Tuttle, a veterinarian and senior vice president of zoological operations at the aquarium. Three of the whales are seven years old, and the other two are six.

For now, the five whales are adjusting to their new home in the back two pools of the habitat. The whales are all doing well, and are eating, interacting with each other, swimming normally, playing with their enrichment toys, and soliciting attention from the trainers, says Tuttle. “I think the fact that they were such a bonded social group, and [they] came together, it’s just really made for smooth acclimation,” she says. “We’re thrilled.”

The three whales already at the aquarium are in the habitat’s main pool, and the staff and trainers are noting the interactions between the two groups through the gates that separate the pools. “As expected, these [exchanges] have been positive,” she added.

Over the next five years, the whales will be part of a scientific study with seven specific projects, ranging from developing noninvasive techniques that can assess belugas’ health to testing their physiological responses to sound.

Mystic Aquarium originally submitted the request for a permit to import the five beluga whales in March 2019, gaining the approval of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on August 27, 2020. Awaiting the approval of DFO, as well as the resolution of a lawsuit filed jointly by Last Chance for Animals and Friends of Animals, delayed the move, as Mystic Aquarium agreed to wait until the lawsuit was resolved. The case, which argued that the move was not in the whales’ best interests and that the permit violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, was found to have no reasonable cause to proceed by the US federal court.

It is worth noting that three of the whales originally identified in the permit request were replaced by other belugas from Marineland in December 2020 because they were having health issues. The swap was made to avoid adding any stress to the animals while they recovered, Tuttle says. The animals that did travel did so after medical testing. “No animal travels without a health certificate, and to get that health certificate they have to complete full workups with bloodwork and medical exams, and part of that includes diagnostic testing for infectious disease,” Tuttle says.

Mystic Aquarium has long been a leader in beluga research, says Tracy Romano, a beluga expert and vice president of biological research at the aquarium. Ultimately, scientists with the aquarium hope their efforts will help the conservation of endangered and depleted wild beluga populations, which are threatened by climate change, noise, and pollution. “I can honestly say that there are things we just can’t answer by studying animals in the wild,” Romano says. “The complement of what we’re learning from aquarium animals with what we’re doing on wild animals is really critical to the research.”

NOAA’s approval outlined a number of key restrictions to what Mystic Aquarium can do with the whales, including barring them from breeding; using them in public interactive programs, such as photo opportunities; or training them for performance.

These restrictions are designed to adhere to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prevents the progeny of a depleted wild population from being housed in captivity solely for public display. Many of the 50 or so whales at Marineland are descendants of belugas originally captured from Russia’s Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River population, and all five of the transported whales’ mothers are from this stock, although it’s unclear where their fathers came from. Regardless, NOAA is treating these five as if they are from this depleted stock.

In an emailed statement, DFO said that when it approved the export permit, “it was under the condition that the whales will not be used for breeding or in performances at the new facility.” According to DFO, it also considered the following before issuing the permit: the value and validity of the proposed scientific research; the standards and animal care practices at Mystic Aquarium; the commitment made by Mystic Aquarium to DFO that the animals will not be used for breeding; and the fact that the animals are not being imported to be used in performances for entertainment purposes.

However, Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, is concerned because the exact conditions of the export permit have not been made available to the public. Unlike the United States, she says, “Canada is remarkably non-transparent, and we cannot see the export permit, and that worries us.” Her concern is that the export permit could be weaker than the import permit approved by NOAA, especially regarding restrictions on breeding.

She says that although Canada has passed a law that ends the public display of captive cetaceans, with a number of specific exemptions, this whale transfer took place before the regulations for that law were finalized.

Without revealing the full details of the export permit, DFO’s statement said that while the law’s regulations are still in the works, permit requests were reviewed by DFO based on the criteria noted above. “In all cases,” the statement reads, “the Minister of Fisheries has discretion over permit decisions, based on the considerations set out in the Fisheries Act.”

DFO also said that although it recognizes that “Canadian policies and laws do not apply in the United States, the Minister is approving the export in good faith that Mystic Aquarium will honour its commitments to the Minister and to Canadians.”