Eleven juvenile beluga whales and 87 juvenile orcas (killer whales) are currently living in small pens along Russia's eastern coast, near the city of Nakhodka. They've been living there for at least seven months.
Many of the young whales are reportedly unwell, and concern for their well-being is mounting. According to a report from CBS News, Russia's President Vladmir Putin recently ordered a government investigation, and is now calling for the whales to be released.
News of the infamous "whale jail" first surfaced in late 2018, after drone footage of the whale's grim living conditions went viral. In November, CBS News reported that approximately 100 whales were being held in "cramped and potentially illegal enclosures" outside the Russian city of Nakhoda. Located along the nation's Pacific east coast, activists feared the "whale jail" was part of an illegal whale trade operation and that the giant sea mammals were being sold to Chinese water parks and aquariums.
In Russia, it is legal to capture whales for scientific and educational purposes, but there are strong suspicions that these whales were destined for a more clandestine purpose. First and foremost, the catching of whale calves is explicitly forbidden for any reason. Experts say that the size of the whale pens indicates they are indeed babies.
In addition to the fact these whales were most likely captured for illegal sale into the Chinese aquatic entertainment market, they are not in good health. According to BBC, a report from Greenpeace Russia states that many of the animals are showing signs of hypothermia and that ice has started to collect in their pens.
Greenpeace has declared these conditions are "torture."
Wild whales swim many kilometers every day, which helps them stay warm in the frigid Arctic waters. Being confined in a small pen filled with ice is a recipe for injury and illness. Whale populations are already facing enough struggles; illegal operations like this serve only to threaten whales even further.
Petitions and public outrage have encouraged response from the Russian government. A number of celebrities have spoken out about their concern for the young whales, helping to raise awareness. President Vladmir Putin ordered an investigation into the whale jail and plans to set the whales free are reportedly in the works. But while officials are trying to plan a safe and successful release, the whales continue to suffer in their jail cells.
CBS reports that Russian authorities have charged four companies that appear to be tied to the whale jail with violating fishing laws. All four companies have been fined for illegal capture in the past, and are known for selling animals to the entertainment industry.
According to reports, Ecology Minister Dmitry Kobylkin told Russian TASS, a Russian state news agency, that the government is doing everything they can. "No one objects to releasing the orcas, but the most important thing is to release them properly," he stated. The Ministry of Natural Resources unanimously agreed on the importance of preventing further harm to the whales during their transition back to the open sea.
While the criminal investigation is still under way, activists are still waiting for the whales to be freed.
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