Russia releases more Orcas from ‘whale jail’

Nakhodka, Russia: Three orcas were loaded onto trucks at a controversial facility in Russia’s Far East on Thursday, as the country continues to release animals from what the media have dubbed “whale jail”.
The secluded facility near the town of Nakhodka contains dozens of killer and beluga whales which were caught to be sent to aquariums, but are now to be set free after a global outcry and intervention by President Vladimir Putin.
Last month two killer whales and six belugas were released after a six-day trip north to the Sea of Okhotsk which involved driving the trucks with a police escort, and then shipping the animals on a barge.
The three whales loaded onto trucks on Thursday are expected to be released following a similar journey.
An AFP correspondent at the scene observed employees removing the glass roof of the floating dock housing the killer whale pens.
Divers could be seen going into the pens and using nets to move the animals onto a fabric stretcher with holes cut for the flippers.
The animals were then lifted and placed into containers with water on three trucks.
The orcas remaining in the pens and the beluga whales kept nearby could be heard vocalising loudly during the procedure and splashed in the water.
Journalists were not permitted to enter the premises. Environmentalists and marine mammal experts have complained that the previous release went on with no independent oversight.
No observers were invited to the loading on Thursday, said Dmitry Lisitsyn, coordinator of Sakhalin Environmental Watch, a group which has campaigned for the release and successfully sued over Russia’s practice of catching wild orcas.
Russia is the only country capturing wild orcas and belugas and selling them to aquariums, a controversial practice that has continued due to legal loopholes.
The controversy came to a head when images of what the media have nicknamed the “whale jail” were published this year.
Scientists have advised that all 10 killer whales held in the facility be released together as a group, as they have formed relationships in the months since their capture while older orcas could teach the youngest how to hunt.
The All-Russian Fisheries and Oceanography Institute (VNIRO), which is coordinating the releases, said the cost of such an operation would be prohibitive.
The facility near Nakhodka still contains a remaining five killer whales and 81 belugas. — AFP