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Aquariums
Into the deep

After eight years of planning, the Sea Life Trust, the adopted marine charity of Merlin Entertainments, opened the world’s first cetacean sanctuary in Iceland recently. Sea Life’s James Burleigh talks to Kath Hudson about the long, and sometimes painful, journey to a joyous ending


One of Merlin Entertainments’ founding principles is that the company will not keep any cetaceans in its attractions for entertainment purposes, so when two young beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, came into the company’s hands in 2012, Merlin CEO, Nick Varney, charged Sea Life’s chief ambassador, James Burleigh, with the task of creating a home for them which was as close to the wild as possible.

What followed was a mission of epic proportions. It was incredibly costly – the price will not be revealed or recouped – but Burleigh says that everyone at Merlin Entertainments, from the top down, was fully behind the campaign, because it was the morally right thing to do.

Many from outside the company became equally invested in the project’s success. Comedian, John Bishop, became part of the team through his role presenting an ITV documentary about the project, called John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue, and as a result fell in love with these mesmerising animals.

The story started nine years ago when Merlin acquired Living and Leisure Australia, owner of Shanghai Changfeng Ocean World, which ran a beluga whale show. Little Grey and Little White were only six years old at the time and as they can live to be 40- or 50-years-old, much of their life was still ahead of them.

Re-release into the wild wasn’t an option, as they wouldn’t have the skills to survive, so the challenge was to find a location which would allow them to be as free as possible and replicate their natural habitat.

“We needed very cold waters, in a bay which could be netted off to create a sea pen and in a place with the right infrastructure,” explains Burleigh. “We also needed unequivocal support locally and nationally. Russia would have been ideal from an environmental point of view, as that is where they come from, but was ruled out as the landscape and existing infrastructure was unsuitable.”

Ideal location
After a comprehensive scout around the planet, Klettsvik Bay on Heimaey Island in southern Iceland was chosen, which was where Keiko the Orca from the Free Willy films was kept briefly after being retired. While a very small amount of whaling remains in Iceland, whale watching trips are fuelling a booming tourism industry and now millions of inbound tourists seek out whales as a source of wonder and engagement, which sits particularly well with the fact that the country is now proud to boast the world’s first cetacean sanctuary.

Following an agreement with the municipality of the Westman Islands, the space was secured for a nominal rent. “It benefits the island by making it an iconic destination,” says Burleigh. “We also relocated a local aquarium and sprinkled some Sea Life pixie dust on it to create a small attraction, which will be a fundraiser for the Sea Life Trust.”

Burleigh says this wouldn’t be a site Merlin would usually consider for an attraction. It has a very short season and has to close in the winter, because the enjoyable 30-minute ferry ride can’t operate – the route is replaced by a choppy three hour journey from a different port in the winter months.

The island has 4,000 residents and just 100,000 tourists a year. “We would never normally build an attraction in such a place, but there is also a volcano and volcano museum, the largest puffin colony in Europe, a good golf course and walks, so with the addition of the sanctuary, it’s likely to get more tourism,” he says.

“Added to this, the local people are amazing. They are very resourceful and they have so much expertise – whether it’s divers or people to manufacture the nets we found everything we needed locally.”

Challenges galore
Two years ago I interviewed Burleigh about the development (Attractions Management Q1 2019) and, with the sanctuary secured, the project seemed to be on the home straight. The move-in date was planned for June 2019, with release into the bay for the whales scheduled for August the same year. In reality it was nowhere near as simple.

The first move-in date was called off because the weather conditions in Klettsvik Bay meant the ferry wasn’t able to run, so because of a hitch with the final nine miles, the whole mission had to be postponed.

“That’s when I had the sweatiest palms and had to have the most difficult conversation of the whole project,” Burleigh says. “Cargolux had very kindly donated the flight – which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds – and it had already taken off when I had to break the news they had to go back.

“Having asked them to donate one flight, I then had to ask if they would donate a second one. The CEO is a brilliant guy and he did agree, but he made it very clear that if it happened again I would be summoned to Luxembourg!”

The second attempt was nudged forward by two months. Each move date involved a massive amount of organisation, including specialists being assembled from all over the world.

Bespoke transportation slings were crafted to fit the whales, so their pectoral fins would be in the right place. They were loaded into an articulated lorry to cross Shanghai and once they got to the airport, there was a nail-biting wait for a customs officer to arrive to sign the cargo off, causing the plane to miss its original take-off slot.

Burleigh says once again they had a narrow window with the weather, meaning they left on the last possible day.

Cargolux had to negotiate with Russia for a low flight path to avoid changes in air pressure. The whales had iced water pumped onto them throughout the journey to keep them cool, and were constantly monitored for signs of distress. All in all, the journey from Shanghai to the new custom-built care pool on Heimaey Island took almost 40 hours, including two lorry rides, one flight and a ferry.

The team was euphoric at getting the whales to their new home, but because the move date had been delayed, there wasn’t enough time to get them accustomed to the ocean before the harsh winter of 2019/20 set in, so the release date into the bay was delayed until April 2020. “ We asked ourselves, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’” Says Burleigh.

Covid chaos
“Then in April there was the small matter of a global pandemic, with Iceland going into lockdown along with most of Europe,” he says. “The pandemic caused problems in so many ways, even when lockdown was lifted. There were hardly any flights and they were all expensive. With the quarantining it meant each trip took at least 10 days. It caused disruption in the wider business world, creating difficulties with fundraising, and impacted tourism to the new visitor centre on the island.”

So the release date into the bay was pushed back again, to June 2020. Once again the team and cameras were assembled for the big day, only to discover at the last moment that the whales had minor bacterial stomach infections and would need to stay in the care pool for a few more weeks.

Finally, amid tears and celebrations, they were released into the sea in August 2020 and for the first time in 12 years Little Grey and Little White felt the sun and rain on their backs and saw puffins and octopus. Before being allowed full run of the bay they had to be trained to come back to the trainers, led by specialist curator, Jessica Whitton, who will monitor their health for the rest of their lives.

A happy ending
Finally, they were let out into the wider bay in September 2020. At 32,000sq m, their new living quarters are 35 times bigger than the space they’d been used to, with a depth of more than 10m. As the release date had been delayed, they didn’t have time to acclimatise to the sea sufficiently to cope with the winter of 2020/21, so were brought temporarily back into the care pool for a second time.

“Pragmatism has been the key word,” says Burleigh about the arduous process. “Each time we came up against a hurdle we had to work out how to get over or go around it. There was no precedent and we did make mistakes. But now we have a blueprint, so other operators can approach us if they want to do something similar.”

He points out that this project isn’t just about Little Grey and Little White. “There are 300 belugas and 3,000 cetaceans in captivity and we would definitely like to welcome more,” he says. “This sanctuary could house 10 and we also have the facility to move the nets and enlarge the enclosure.”

Burleigh says the whales are thriving. They’ve started catching fish and bringing them back to their trainers – sometimes they eat them rather than hand them over, which shows a return to their natural behaviour.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team are still in recovery mode: “We had months of disturbed sleep due to the stress and the long Icelandic days,” says Burleigh. “All the same, if someone rang tomorrow about rehoming a cetacean, I would definitely talk to them! It’s been a privilege to be able to work on this. I’m very thankful for the opportunity and very proud of what we’ve achieved as a team.”

Comedian John Bishop presented a documentary about the whales’ journey Credit: Press Association on behalf of SEA LIFE Trust
The partners at Cargolux – the company sponsored the 6,000 mile flight
James Burleigh (left) and the Merlin team celebrate with John Bishop during the filming of the ITV documentary
The journey to the whales’ new home in Iceland took almost 40 hours Credit: Photo: Tesni Ward
Specialists came from around the world to work with the whales Credit: Press Association on behalf of SEA LIFE Trust
Little Grey and Little White take their first swim in their new home Credit: Photo: Matthew Parsons
The belugas’ health and wellbeing will be monitored for the rest of their lives Credit: Press Association on behalf of SEA LIFE Trust
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Founded in 1966, the Antonio Zamperla SPA is privately owned by Mr Alberto Zamperla. Located in Vi [more...]
WhiteWater

WhiteWater was born in 1980 with one clear purpose, to create places where families unite and make j [more...]
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A former national ski team racer, ProSlide® CEO Rick Hunter’s goal has been to integrate the smoot [more...]
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FEATURED SUPPLIER

Attractions industry to reunite this September at IAAPA Expo Europe in London
For the first time in more than a decade, industry leaders from across the global attractions industry will once again gather in London as part of the annual IAAPA Expo Europe, the sector’s premier international event. [more...]
VIDEO GALLERY

International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) - IAAPA Expo Europe Promo
A celebration of the industry, IAAPA Expo Europe is where thousands of leisure professionals gather to learn what’s new and trending. With hundreds of exhibitors set to showcase their innovations, an education conference packed with insights on sustainability, guest experience, technology combined with Special Events and EDUTours, this year’s expo promises to be one of our best. Find out more...
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+ More catalogues  
DIRECTORY
+ More directory  
DIARY

 

27-29 Sep 2022

International Congress on Thermal Tourism

Ourense, Ourense, Spain
13 Oct 2022

VAC 2022

The ICC Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom
+ More diary  
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©Cybertrek 2022
Jobs    News   Products   Magazine
Aquariums
Into the deep

After eight years of planning, the Sea Life Trust, the adopted marine charity of Merlin Entertainments, opened the world’s first cetacean sanctuary in Iceland recently. Sea Life’s James Burleigh talks to Kath Hudson about the long, and sometimes painful, journey to a joyous ending


One of Merlin Entertainments’ founding principles is that the company will not keep any cetaceans in its attractions for entertainment purposes, so when two young beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, came into the company’s hands in 2012, Merlin CEO, Nick Varney, charged Sea Life’s chief ambassador, James Burleigh, with the task of creating a home for them which was as close to the wild as possible.

What followed was a mission of epic proportions. It was incredibly costly – the price will not be revealed or recouped – but Burleigh says that everyone at Merlin Entertainments, from the top down, was fully behind the campaign, because it was the morally right thing to do.

Many from outside the company became equally invested in the project’s success. Comedian, John Bishop, became part of the team through his role presenting an ITV documentary about the project, called John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue, and as a result fell in love with these mesmerising animals.

The story started nine years ago when Merlin acquired Living and Leisure Australia, owner of Shanghai Changfeng Ocean World, which ran a beluga whale show. Little Grey and Little White were only six years old at the time and as they can live to be 40- or 50-years-old, much of their life was still ahead of them.

Re-release into the wild wasn’t an option, as they wouldn’t have the skills to survive, so the challenge was to find a location which would allow them to be as free as possible and replicate their natural habitat.

“We needed very cold waters, in a bay which could be netted off to create a sea pen and in a place with the right infrastructure,” explains Burleigh. “We also needed unequivocal support locally and nationally. Russia would have been ideal from an environmental point of view, as that is where they come from, but was ruled out as the landscape and existing infrastructure was unsuitable.”

Ideal location
After a comprehensive scout around the planet, Klettsvik Bay on Heimaey Island in southern Iceland was chosen, which was where Keiko the Orca from the Free Willy films was kept briefly after being retired. While a very small amount of whaling remains in Iceland, whale watching trips are fuelling a booming tourism industry and now millions of inbound tourists seek out whales as a source of wonder and engagement, which sits particularly well with the fact that the country is now proud to boast the world’s first cetacean sanctuary.

Following an agreement with the municipality of the Westman Islands, the space was secured for a nominal rent. “It benefits the island by making it an iconic destination,” says Burleigh. “We also relocated a local aquarium and sprinkled some Sea Life pixie dust on it to create a small attraction, which will be a fundraiser for the Sea Life Trust.”

Burleigh says this wouldn’t be a site Merlin would usually consider for an attraction. It has a very short season and has to close in the winter, because the enjoyable 30-minute ferry ride can’t operate – the route is replaced by a choppy three hour journey from a different port in the winter months.

The island has 4,000 residents and just 100,000 tourists a year. “We would never normally build an attraction in such a place, but there is also a volcano and volcano museum, the largest puffin colony in Europe, a good golf course and walks, so with the addition of the sanctuary, it’s likely to get more tourism,” he says.

“Added to this, the local people are amazing. They are very resourceful and they have so much expertise – whether it’s divers or people to manufacture the nets we found everything we needed locally.”

Challenges galore
Two years ago I interviewed Burleigh about the development (Attractions Management Q1 2019) and, with the sanctuary secured, the project seemed to be on the home straight. The move-in date was planned for June 2019, with release into the bay for the whales scheduled for August the same year. In reality it was nowhere near as simple.

The first move-in date was called off because the weather conditions in Klettsvik Bay meant the ferry wasn’t able to run, so because of a hitch with the final nine miles, the whole mission had to be postponed.

“That’s when I had the sweatiest palms and had to have the most difficult conversation of the whole project,” Burleigh says. “Cargolux had very kindly donated the flight – which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds – and it had already taken off when I had to break the news they had to go back.

“Having asked them to donate one flight, I then had to ask if they would donate a second one. The CEO is a brilliant guy and he did agree, but he made it very clear that if it happened again I would be summoned to Luxembourg!”

The second attempt was nudged forward by two months. Each move date involved a massive amount of organisation, including specialists being assembled from all over the world.

Bespoke transportation slings were crafted to fit the whales, so their pectoral fins would be in the right place. They were loaded into an articulated lorry to cross Shanghai and once they got to the airport, there was a nail-biting wait for a customs officer to arrive to sign the cargo off, causing the plane to miss its original take-off slot.

Burleigh says once again they had a narrow window with the weather, meaning they left on the last possible day.

Cargolux had to negotiate with Russia for a low flight path to avoid changes in air pressure. The whales had iced water pumped onto them throughout the journey to keep them cool, and were constantly monitored for signs of distress. All in all, the journey from Shanghai to the new custom-built care pool on Heimaey Island took almost 40 hours, including two lorry rides, one flight and a ferry.

The team was euphoric at getting the whales to their new home, but because the move date had been delayed, there wasn’t enough time to get them accustomed to the ocean before the harsh winter of 2019/20 set in, so the release date into the bay was delayed until April 2020. “ We asked ourselves, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’” Says Burleigh.

Covid chaos
“Then in April there was the small matter of a global pandemic, with Iceland going into lockdown along with most of Europe,” he says. “The pandemic caused problems in so many ways, even when lockdown was lifted. There were hardly any flights and they were all expensive. With the quarantining it meant each trip took at least 10 days. It caused disruption in the wider business world, creating difficulties with fundraising, and impacted tourism to the new visitor centre on the island.”

So the release date into the bay was pushed back again, to June 2020. Once again the team and cameras were assembled for the big day, only to discover at the last moment that the whales had minor bacterial stomach infections and would need to stay in the care pool for a few more weeks.

Finally, amid tears and celebrations, they were released into the sea in August 2020 and for the first time in 12 years Little Grey and Little White felt the sun and rain on their backs and saw puffins and octopus. Before being allowed full run of the bay they had to be trained to come back to the trainers, led by specialist curator, Jessica Whitton, who will monitor their health for the rest of their lives.

A happy ending
Finally, they were let out into the wider bay in September 2020. At 32,000sq m, their new living quarters are 35 times bigger than the space they’d been used to, with a depth of more than 10m. As the release date had been delayed, they didn’t have time to acclimatise to the sea sufficiently to cope with the winter of 2020/21, so were brought temporarily back into the care pool for a second time.

“Pragmatism has been the key word,” says Burleigh about the arduous process. “Each time we came up against a hurdle we had to work out how to get over or go around it. There was no precedent and we did make mistakes. But now we have a blueprint, so other operators can approach us if they want to do something similar.”

He points out that this project isn’t just about Little Grey and Little White. “There are 300 belugas and 3,000 cetaceans in captivity and we would definitely like to welcome more,” he says. “This sanctuary could house 10 and we also have the facility to move the nets and enlarge the enclosure.”

Burleigh says the whales are thriving. They’ve started catching fish and bringing them back to their trainers – sometimes they eat them rather than hand them over, which shows a return to their natural behaviour.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team are still in recovery mode: “We had months of disturbed sleep due to the stress and the long Icelandic days,” says Burleigh. “All the same, if someone rang tomorrow about rehoming a cetacean, I would definitely talk to them! It’s been a privilege to be able to work on this. I’m very thankful for the opportunity and very proud of what we’ve achieved as a team.”

Comedian John Bishop presented a documentary about the whales’ journey Credit: Press Association on behalf of SEA LIFE Trust
The partners at Cargolux – the company sponsored the 6,000 mile flight
James Burleigh (left) and the Merlin team celebrate with John Bishop during the filming of the ITV documentary
The journey to the whales’ new home in Iceland took almost 40 hours Credit: Photo: Tesni Ward
Specialists came from around the world to work with the whales Credit: Press Association on behalf of SEA LIFE Trust
Little Grey and Little White take their first swim in their new home Credit: Photo: Matthew Parsons
The belugas’ health and wellbeing will be monitored for the rest of their lives Credit: Press Association on behalf of SEA LIFE Trust
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COMPANY PROFILES
TOR Systems Ltd

TOR Systems have been in this business since 1981. [more...]
Antonio Zamperla Spa

Founded in 1966, the Antonio Zamperla SPA is privately owned by Mr Alberto Zamperla. Located in Vi [more...]
WhiteWater

WhiteWater was born in 1980 with one clear purpose, to create places where families unite and make j [more...]
ProSlide Technology, Inc.

A former national ski team racer, ProSlide® CEO Rick Hunter’s goal has been to integrate the smoot [more...]
+ More profiles  
FEATURED SUPPLIER

Attractions industry to reunite this September at IAAPA Expo Europe in London
For the first time in more than a decade, industry leaders from across the global attractions industry will once again gather in London as part of the annual IAAPA Expo Europe, the sector’s premier international event. [more...]
VIDEO GALLERY

International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) - IAAPA Expo Europe Promo
A celebration of the industry, IAAPA Expo Europe is where thousands of leisure professionals gather to learn what’s new and trending. With hundreds of exhibitors set to showcase their innovations, an education conference packed with insights on sustainability, guest experience, technology combined with Special Events and EDUTours, this year’s expo promises to be one of our best. Find out more...
More videos:
Keynote | Moby Dick - Friends to the rescue! – Red Raion
ProSlide's all-in-one waterplay entertainment center – Proslide Tech Inc
Red Raion Showreel 2021 – Red Raion
+ More videos  

CATALOGUE GALLERY
+ More catalogues  
DIRECTORY
+ More directory  
DIARY

 

27-29 Sep 2022

International Congress on Thermal Tourism

Ourense, Ourense, Spain
13 Oct 2022

VAC 2022

The ICC Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom
+ More diary  
 


ADVERTISE . CONTACT US

Leisure Media
Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385

©Cybertrek 2022

ABOUT LEISURE MEDIA
LEISURE MEDIA MAGAZINES
LEISURE MEDIA HANDBOOKS
LEISURE MEDIA WEBSITES
LEISURE MEDIA PRODUCT SEARCH
ATTRACTIONS MANAGEMENT NEWS
ATTRACTIONS HANDBOOK
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