Time running out for orcas, belugas trapped in icy 'whale jail'

Russian video footage shows that the animals, likely bound for aquariums, are languishing in freezing waters and legal limbo.

The wild-caught animals appear to be suffering from exposure to cold, bacteria, and stress.

Time running out for orcas, belugas trapped in icy 'whale jail'

Russian video footage shows that the animals, likely bound for aquariums, are languishing in freezing waters and legal limbo.

The wild-caught animals appear to be suffering from exposure to cold, bacteria, and stress.

The video shows a bird’s eye view: dozens of wild beluga whales and orcas trapped in frozen seawater.

Eleven killer whales (also known as orcas) and 87 belugas languish in several rectangular sea pens in Srednyaya Bay in Russia’s Far East. Four Russian firms that supply marine animals to aquariums caught them over the course of several months in the summer of 2018. Their plight made headlines in November, when a drone captured aerial video footage of the facility, leading the media to label it the “whale jail.”

That month, regional authorities opened an investigation into the alleged illegal capture of the marine mammals. Russia’s Prosecutor General warns that selling them to aquariums in other countries, such as China, would be illegal. (Read more about Russian orcas in Chinese marine parks.)

The animals now appear to be suffering tremendously, says Dmitry Lisitsyn, head of Sakhalin Environment Watch, an NGO based on Sakhalin Island, also on the Far East coast. Authorities invited Lisitsyn, marine mammal researchers, and veterinarians to visit the facility on January 18 and 19 to assess the animals’ health.

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One of 87 beluga whales swims in a sea pen at the holding facility in Russia's Srednyaya Bay.

Lisitsyn says 15 of the belugas are babies who likely hadn’t yet been weaned off their mothers’ milk when they were captured. All the belugas seem to be in distress, he says. He explains that workers at the facility regularly break up ice as it forms in the pens so the animals can surface, which they must do to breathe and stay alive. The belugas are “used to living in ice,” he says. “But they’re not used to being held in a 12-by-10-meter [space] with men crashing shovels over their heads.”

It’s even worse for the orcas, Lisitsyn says. Although they’re conditioned to live in cold water, he says, they typically migrate south during the winter. He captured video showing several orcas with skin lesions on and around their dorsal fins. Lisitsyn and marine scientists who reviewed the footage say that the lesions could be frostbite from exposure to prolonged cold, a fungal or bacterial infection stemming from the stagnant water, or both.

Veterinarian Tatyana Denisenko, a professor at the Moscow-based Academy of Veterinary Medicine and Biotechnology, who visited the facility with Lisitsyn, took samples from the water and from the orcas’ lesions. “The skin of most of the 11 killer whales is thickly seeded with various microorganisms,” she says. She says this suggests that food left in the pens may be rotting and infecting the orcas’ skin.

Denisenko, Lisitsyn, and others are particularly concerned about one young orca named Kirill, who had been acting very lethargically and exhibited extensive skin lesions. Lisitsyn says he fears for Kirill's survival.

TRAPPED IN LEGAL LIMBO

The fate of these animals is in the balance. Authorities might seize them for rehabilitation and release back into the wild. Or they may rule that the companies that caught them did not act illegally and are free to sell the animals to aquariums. But Russian aquariums don’t have the capacity to take the orcas, and it’s illegal to export them abroad, says Dmitry Glazov, who serves as deputy chair of Russia’s Moscow-based Marine Mammal Council, an NGO that unites scientists in the field to study the conservation of marine mammals.

The third possibility: The animals will die.

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Elven killer whales captured from the wild also are confined to sea pens. The skin of most is "thickly seeded with various microorganisms," says a veterinarian who was allowed access and took samples.

Lisitsyn and others allege that the belugas and orcas were sourced illegally and that the central government must act to save them. On February 1, three NGOs, including Sakhalin Watch, filed a lawsuit against three Russian government agencies, alleging that under Russian law, they’re obligated to confiscate illegally sourced wild animals and return them to their natural habitat. “The state is the rightful owner of the animals and must seize these animals and let them back into the wild,” Lisitsyn says.

One of the four companies that claims ownership of the animals, Bely Kit, says that it caught the orcas and belugas legally. Anton Pekarsky, a lawyer for the company, confirmed Bely Kit’s plans “to deliver the animals to aquariums in Russia and abroad” this year. It would not release them into the wild unless ordered by a court, he wrote in an email. Two of the other companies, Afalina and Oceanarium DV, told local media that they also complied with the law. The fourth company, Sochi Dolphinarium, did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether Russian authorities are actively pursuing an investigation is uncertain. Oxana Fedorova, head of Save Dolphins, a Moscow-based cetacean welfare group, says the case has passed from agency to agency and is now under the jurisdiction of the Investigative Committee of the Khabarovsk Region, a local government agency responsible for pursuing criminal cases. “From the legal point of view, it’s completely unclear what is happening” with the animals, says Glazov.

John Ford, a professor of zoology and orca expert at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, reviewed the footage taken by Lisitsyn. He says that with proper medical screening and careful treatment to restore the orcas to health, they could be returned to the wild. If released together near Srednyaya Bay, he says, “they’d likely form their own social group, at least in the short term, and the younger animals could benefit from the hunting skills of the older individuals.” (Lisitsyn says the same applies to the belugas.)

But, says Ford, “the longer these killer whales are held in this substandard facility, the more difficult it will be to adapt back to a life in the wild.”

Update: On February 21, one of the captive killer whales went missing. Facility owners filed a report saying it likely escaped. Environmentalists familiar with the holding pen say escape is nearly impossible and that it's likely the orca died. President Vladimir Putin today issued an order that environmental investigators must make a decision about the whales' fate by March 1.

Update: On February 7, Russian investigators announced that they have launched a new probe into possible mistreatment of animals in the facility. The announcement says investigators will "promptly take comprehensive measures" to release them back into the wild.
Richie Hertzberg contributed reporting to this story.
Maria Antonova is a journalist based in Moscow. She has written for National Geographic, Undark, Foreign Policy, and Agence France-Presse, where she is a correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.