Rehoming animals is a tough job that requires a lot of responsibility. But taking two whales to a new continent in the middle of a global pandemic is about as hard as it gets.

Nevertheless, it’s done. Two belugas, Little Grey and Little White, are enjoying their first taste of the sea since 2011, thanks to a relocation project that has been years in the making.

Both of them were captured off the coast of Russia when they were still very young and have spent years performing in a Chinese aquarium.

Now, the two are getting used to Beluga Whale Sanctuary, run by British charity Sea Life Trust, in Iceland.

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

Bored Panda spoke with Leonie Sophia van den Hoek, a scientific and fantasy writer who’s a marine biologist and scientific researcher, to find out more about these awesome creatures.

“In my opinion, beluga whales are like the unicorns of whales because of their unusual and beautiful white color,” van den Hoek said. “They also lack a dorsal fin which makes them even more unusual among cetaceans.”

Sadly, due to us humans, their life is only harder. “We are making their home — the sea — warmer and dirtier. “Beluga whales live in open water areas close to the ice edge. They like it cold, and climate change is causing the ice in their habitats to melt,” van den Hoek explained. “Another problem is our use of plastic. It was found in nearly every beluga whale that was tested.”

This may sound absurd, but it’s true. A pioneering study of 7 belugas in Canada’s remote Arctic waters has found microplastics in the innards of every single whale.

Image credits: The Press Association

The charity stated that the two 12-year-old females arrived safely at Klettsvik Bay, where they will stay in a bayside care pool for a short period of time to acclimatize before being released into the wider sanctuary.

Klettsvik Bay is the world’s first open water sanctuary for belugas.

“It’s been quite the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s general manager, told CNN on a video call. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love.”

Image credits: The Press Association

In 2011, Little Grey and Little White were transferred from a Russian research facility to the Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in Shanghai. The following year, however, Merlin Entertainments, a company opposed to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, bought the aquarium and the idea of taking the whales back to the sea was born.

According to Padgett, the belugas’ new home is a much “larger, natural environment” with lots of potential benefits.

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

She said there are more than 300 belugas in captivity around the world.

“Some belugas are in cramped and unsuitable conditions,” Padgett added. “And if what we can learn here from Little White and Little Grey can help improve welfare for other animals … that’s really the point.”

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

Padgett highlighted that moving two belugas was no easy task. They each weigh a little more than a ton (2,000 pounds) and consume around 110 pounds of fish per day between them. The operation required specially designed equipment, veterinarians, and a whole lot of water and ice to keep them hosed down.

Little Grey and Little White had bespoke “stretchers” or slings to move them overland, and the team did “practice runs” to get them used to being moved via trucks, tugboats, and cranes, Padgett explained.  “If you’re trying to take your cat or your dog somewhere, you want them to have a positive association with travel … We had to make the belugas as comfortable as possible.”

Image credits: SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

After their arrival in Iceland, the whales were kept in a care facility with a quarantine pool for several months, allowing them to adjust to the colder Icelandic environment. Though the final part of the journey from the care facility to the sanctuary was a lot shorter than the 6,000-mile trip from Chengfeng Ocean World, the pandemic complicated it significantly.

“We’re already in a pretty remote location here in Iceland. It affected our ability to get experts here to help us with the move. It affected our ability to get supplies and just the length of time it took to do things,” Padgett said.

Image credits: ABC News

“We also needed to protect our staff and put them into quarantine, because we need our people to take care of our animals.”

Little Grey and Little White’s odyssey still isn’t over. They are currently in an “acclimatization space” within the sanctuary. Padgett said, however, that they will have freedom over the sanctuary any day now.

Image credits: ABC News

Van den Hoek is very happy that the two whales were moved from an aquarium in Shanghai to a cold seawater sanctuary in Iceland. “Belugas are destined for a life in cold waters. The low temperature of the seawater and a big swimming place is a very good solution for whales who aren’t capable of going back to the artic. If they can adjust good to the new situation, they will be fine.”

“If we take care of our plastic waste and our use of gas, then we are also indirectly taking care of the beluga whale,” van den Hoek added.

Image credits: ABC News