They may have received appreciative applause and affection at Shanghai’s Changfeng Ocean World, but there is one thing that has eluded them so far: freedom.

That will all change in the first quarter of next year when the beluga whales Little Grey and Little White will travel halfway across the world to their new home in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland.

Originally from Russia, the 12-year-old female belugas will live in the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, the world’s first-ever open water sanctuary created for cetaceans, the Sea Life Trust announced recently.

Carried out in partnership with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) organisation, the project hopes to serve as a catalyst for the rehabilitation of more captive whales in natural environments in the future. In the long run, it also hopes that there will be no more whale and dolphin entertainment shows.

According to the WDC, a leading nonprofit dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins, sanctuaries need to offer space and protection in clean waters of the right temperature. Ideally, they should also be accessible to visitors so that they can support the sanctuary financially, learn about the benefits of sanctuaries and spread the word.

From Shanghai, the belugas will start their more than 9,000km journey by air, land and sea to the sanctuary, located in a natural bay at Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off the southern coast of Iceland.

The size and depth of the secluded bay is around 32,000sq m and 10m respectively. The site was selected to provide a more natural sub-Arctic environment and wild habitat for the whales’ new home.

“This project has been years in the making and is a pioneering solution to how the aquarium industry can re-shape the future of whales in captivity,” Andy Bool, head of Sea Life Trust, says in a press release.

“This is a truly global effort and working with our partners, leading veterinarians and marine experts, we believe providing a more natural habitat for Little Grey and Little White to interact with the natural environment will greatly enhance their quality of life,” he says.

Stretching at 4m in length, the whales each have very different personalities. Little White is the shy and reserved gal, while Little Grey is known to be more vocal and mischievous.

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A trainer feeds Little Grey and Little White at Changfeng Ocean World, Shanghai.

Experts say they may never adapt back into the wild due to their years in captivity.

Why Little Grey and Little White

Britain-based Merlin Enter-tainments has a long-standing philosophy against keeping cetaceans such as whales and dolphins in captivity for the use of public entertainment.

After acquiring Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in 2012, Merlin began to search for the ideal new home for Little Grey and Little White.

The sanctuary at Klettsvik Bay – a large natural sea inlet and secluded coastal area – is funded by a donation from Merlin Entertainments and supported by Sea Life, the world’s largest chain of family aquariums.

“We are proud to have been a partner from the very beginning in this important project to improve beluga welfare and hope it will create a blueprint for further such sanctuaries for belugas and other captive whales and dolphins, which are desperately needed to address the risks captivity poses to whale and dolphin health and welfare.” Chris Butler-Stroud, WDC’s chief executive, says in the press release.

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Klettsvik Bay at Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off the southern coast of Iceland, will serve as the site of the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary. Photo: Sea Life Trust

However, the translocation of the belugas will not be easy.

“This is a complex and logistically challenging rehoming project of two well-loved beluga whales. Little Grey and Little White are highly intelligent marine mammals and are fast learners, but we are taking all precautions to protect their health and well-being,” says Rob Hicks, director of Merlin’s animal and welfare department.

“A team of vets will be with the whales at all times during transit to monitor their welfare to ensure their relocation is successful,” he adds.

“Their job will be to keep each individual whale wet during transport while performing regular heart rate and respiration checks.”

Currently, the whales are taking part in a special training programme to help them adjust for the long, 30-hour journey ahead, as well as adapt to North Atlantic waters.

This includes introducing the belugas to specialist equipment such as stretchers, and platform training to prepare them for transportation; training the whales to hold their breath underwater for longer than usual to get them ready for diving deeper than they can in their currently artificial pool; building the belugas’ strength through fast swims to help them adapt to their new home’s tides and current; and increasing the belugas’ calorie intake with a rich diet of herring and capelin to support weight gain and extra blubber for the colder waters they will experience in Iceland.

“Little Grey and Little White are in excellent condition, but we need to prepare them for the trip by introducing unfamiliar equipment and new techniques into their daily routines to enable them to get used to how we plan to safely handle them on their journey,” says said Mark Todd, sanctuary consultant and an independent marine mammal behaviour expert.

“It’s also important for us to help the whales to acclimatise to a much colder and natural environment where they will need to adapt to freezing temperatures, the local fauna, and much deeper waters,” he says.

The sanctuary, which will include a visitor and education centre and a puffin hospital, will be open to the public for a fee.

It will offer limited and discreet viewing of the whales to ensure they are not disturbed in their new environment. Visitors will also have the opportunity to go out to the bay in small numbers on boat trips to catch a glimpse of Little Grey and Little White.

Sea Life Trust will be running the site on a not-for-profit basis so all income from visitors and donations will be used to ensure that the sanctuary is self-sustaining.

While Klettsvik Bay will become home to Little Grey and Little White first, there is space for additional belugas from other aquariums in the future.

For more information about the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary, visit sealifetrust.org.