Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — A barren tank with concrete walls and artificial rocks, housed on the lower floors of a South Korean mega mall, has been home to a female beluga whale for close to a decade.
The whale was believed to be around two years old when she was captured by boats in Russian waters in 2013 and sold to the Lotte World Aquarium – the largest in Seoul, run by one of South Korea’s richest and largest conglomerates.
She was named Bella. With two male belugas, Belli and Bellu, along with other polar animals like penguins and seals,she formed part of a popular arctic attraction.
In a 1,224 ton tank, 24 feet deep, the trio were often the subject of visitors’ selfies and TikToks, seen diving and twirling around in the luminescent blue water. The whales would sometimes gamely swim up to a viewing gallery to check out visitors, many young children who would rap on the tank’s glass walls, hoping to get the whales’ attention.
“The trade is fueled by greed. There is a lot of money to be made from capturing and selling these charismatic mammals to marine parks and aquariums,” said American dolphin activist Helene O’Barry.
“The exploitation will never stop until spectators look beneath the surface and ask themselves if a few minutes of fun justifies such cruelty.”
Bellu died at the age of 5 in 2016. Belli followed years later in 2019, at the age of 12. In the wild, the average life expectancy of beluga whales is between 35 and 50 years.
Their deaths ignited a firestorm of criticism from South Korean animal rights activists, which prompted the company to act. In 2019, Lotte pledged that it would release Bella.
But there is still no cause for celebration, activists say: it’s nearly 2024, more than four years later, and Bella remains on display. “Lotte says they are taking measures but we do not actually know,” Jo Yak-gol, co-founder of the South Korean marine life group Hot Pink Dolphins, told CNN.
“The exhibit is still open and no release date has been made public.”
The whale also continues to show signs of “stereotypical” stress behavior following the deaths of her companions in their tank, Jo said. Videos sent to CNN showed her spinning around in small circles and floating listlessly near the water’s surface.
“She often circles around the tank without much meaning,” Jo said. “I believe it’s stress.”
In an email exchange with CNN that took place in November, a Lotte spokesperson said release plans were still in place.
Back in May, a company spokesperson told CNN that the process was at its “final stage.”
“Lotte World Aquarium is doing its best to create an appropriate environment and time for Bella’s release through ongoing discussions,” the spokesperson said. “The timing is being coordinated with the (South Korean) Ministry of Health and Welfare as a top priority.”
Bella was “in good health” the spokesperson added, and is currently undergoing training to prepare her for “a new sea environment.”
When asked why she was still on display, the spokesperson said: “At this point, there is no other place for her to stay.”
CNN approached Lotte for further comment earlier this week but did not hear back by the time of publishing.
Dark side of captivity
Like big cats kept as pets and elephant rides, the practice of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity for tourist entertainment has grown increasingly controversial in recent years, largely due to campaigning efforts and expert findings that argue captive animals are not content.
While there has been some change globally, with companies and countries moving to ban activities that involve riding on or touching wild animals, there has not been an industry-wide consensus about keeping wild animals like whales on display.
In the wild, beluga whales are found in the Arctic Ocean and in seas and coasts around Canada, North America, Russia and Greenland.
They are migratory animals, capable of swimming thousands of miles and diving to depths of more than 3,000 feet, among ice floes and fjords, experts say.
Their average lifespan in the wild is anywhere between 35 and 50 years old, but just half that in captivity, they add.
Valeria Vergara, a leading marine biologist who has studied beluga whale populations in areas like the Arctic Archipelago and Hudson Bay for more than two decades, argues that “any species as highly intelligent and socially complex as beluga whales simply cannot be happy in captivity.” “They suffer in captivity because they have no free will and lack mental stimulation,” Vergera told CNN. “They also cannot engage in many of their natural behaviors.”
“When you observe them in the wild, one of the things that strikes you most is how tactile, social and vocal they are,” she adds.
“They travel together in relatively large pods made up of family members and companions and swim in unison with one another.”
“We call them the ‘canaries of the sea’ because of their complex communication system of whistles, chirps and calls – but they tend to be much quieter in captivity.”
The thriving aquarium industry
Activists believe there are around 300 beluga whales in captivity around the world.
The aquarium industry is booming in East Asia. The popularity of ocean theme parks and commercial aquariums has been on the rise in countries like China and Japan, fueled by huge profits as a result of mass tourism.
American dolphin activist Ric O’Barry, a former animal trainer who rose to fame for his work in training bottlenose dolphins for the hit 1960s TV series Flipper, now leads global campaigns to raise awareness about dolphin hunts and the suffering of marine mammals in captivity. O’Barry told CNN that while his organization, the Ric O’Barry Dolphin Project, had seen great progress shutting down parks in the US, Canada, and European countries like Finland and Sweden, more were setting up in Asia.
“The industry as a whole has never taken any responsibility for the copy-cat syndrome they created – It is because of this that we are now seeing East Asian countries starting dolphinariums and marine parks and purchasing wild-caught whales and dolphins to fill up their tanks,” O’Barry said.
“They look at places like SeaWorld and think: ‘If they can do it, so can we’ because they know there will be audiences, those who don’t ask critical questions about where these animals came from or how they were captured.”
“It will take decades to stop it.”
Bella is one of five captive beluga whales in South Korea, according to Jo Yak-gol of Hot Pink Dolphins. “Beluga whales are captured from the Arctic Ocean and then imported to South Korea,” Jo said. “They are housed in small spaces, sometimes with dolphins that have completely different body temperatures.”
An ambitious project that took place at the height of the pandemic in 2020 saw a pair of beluga whales named Little Grey and Little White relocated to a sanctuary in Iceland after spending years in a Shanghai aquarium.
It was a leviathan operation several years in the making – one that involved months of practice runs and teams of specialists and equipment like cranes, tugboats and trucks and incurred huge costs.
Supporters are hoping the same can be done for Bella especially following recent moves by the South Korean government, which on December 14 announced a ban on aquariums buying new dolphins and whales. “Marine mammals are now prohibited from being used for exhibition purposes as well as programs that involve riding or feeding marine mammals,” the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said in a statement.
But even with the best intentions, releasing a captive whale, especially one caught at such a young age, will not come easy.
“The truth is that a whale like Bella is unlikely to make it in the wild,” said Vergara. “Baby belugas learn everything from their mothers. Bella would not have the necessary skills and knowledge she needs to survive. Will she know what to feed on or where to migrate to? Will she be accepted into a pod? Can she communicate with other beluga whales (again)?”
“There are many questions but her best chance at a life is at a sanctuary.”
A solution in Norway?
Lotte officials maintain that the “only one place in the world” where the beluga whale can be released is a sanctuary in Iceland.
The company declined to name the sanctuary or confirm if it is the same facility currently housing the pair of belugas from China.
In a statement to CNN in late November, the company said there had been further delays.
“We recently received a response from the Icelandic operator that they had no choice but to postpone the process due to environmental issues within their facility,” the spokesperson said. Discussions with government agencies and marine experts were still ongoing, the spokesperson added.
“Accordingly, we are discussing various alternatives, including (other) overseas sanctuaries and domestic ones, with experts from the discharge committee.”
Speaking to CNN, operators of an upcoming sanctuary in Norway said they had extended an official invitation to Lotte World Aquarium for Bella to come to its reserve situated in a vast 500-acre arctic fjord and surrounded by islands in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county.
“The Norwegian Whale Reserve (NWR) has been actively engaging with Bella’s owners for the past two years, offering to facilitate her transfer,” said board member Andre Borell. “We are poised to provide a haven for her and potentially another captive beluga whale at the Aqua Planet Yeosu park in South Korea named Ruby, with a natural sea environment where they can roam freely, dive and thrive alongside other marine life.”
Borell and Regina Crosby, founder of the non-profit conservation organization OneWhale, outlined a lengthy plan of action, including securing financial grants to cover care expenses for the whale in Norway. “Bella’s owners have been informed that once she is transported to Norway, there will be no ongoing financial burden for them,” Crosby told CNN. “We want to remove any reasons why Bella should not be moved out of her tank as soon as possible.”
She added: “Although there has been no commitment from Bella or Ruby’s owners, we remain hopeful and are committed to working with South Korean authorities as soon as possible to proceed with the next steps.”
CNN reached back to Lotte representatives to ask for updates about the offer from Norway and received a reply after initial publication.
The company said they had requested plans for the sanctuary as well as data from the Norwegian government about site licensing and its current environmental status.
Lotte said its release committee found “there are currently no facilities to accommodate the beluga whale in Norway and the most important – permission from Norway’s government to create a sanctuary has not even been obtained there.”
“It is unacceptable at this point to send the beluga whale to Norway where there is no actual sanctuary or even a concrete plan. However, we are making efforts to review various alternatives, including domestic and overseas, such as Norway and Canada, with experts from the release committee, and are prepared to send the whale whenever a scientific and practical environment is established for the safe release,” the company added.
“Lotte World Aquarium supports all activities related to protecting animal rights and is making every effort together with government agencies and groups to create a new shelter for the beluga whale.”
‘Time is running out’
With the end of 2023 approaching, animal rights organizations reiterated their calls for Bella’s release. “It’s been nearly five years. Bella has suffered long enough,” said PETA Asia senior vice president Jason Baker. “The Lotte Corporation must stop procrastinating and making excuses because time is running out.”
Beluga whale expert Vergara stressed the urgency. “Bella is suffering alone,” Vergara said. “There is no doubt that a whale in captivity, especially a lonely one, will suffer from chronic stress which can weaken its immune system and ultimately shorten its lifespan.”
“Lotte cannot continue to delay Bella’s transfer. She still has a chance at a new life and must be set free.”
American dolphin activist O’Barry told CNN that he and teams were ready to travel to South Korea “to make it happen.”
“We fully support Bella being relocated to an overseas sanctuary. She needs the company of other whales and to experience the ocean again,” O’Barry said.
“The Lotte group can’t turn back time but they have the opportunity to undo some of the damage by letting her out of that lifeless tank and into a sanctuary.”
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