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A long, and fraught, migration: Mystic Aquarium airlifts beluga whales as advocates protest their confinement

Their arrival marked the end of a long journey for the white whales — and aquarium officials

Mystic Aquarium employees lowered a beluga whale into a wheeled cart to finish the last leg of the journey to its new home.
Mystic Aquarium employees lowered a beluga whale into a wheeled cart to finish the last leg of the journey to its new home.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

MYSTIC, Conn. — After the massive cargo plane rolled to a halt on Friday at a heavily guarded airfield in Groton, a large door in its belly slowly opened, revealing three oversized containers with carefully packed precious cargo.

A team of highly trained veterinarians and others aboard the C-130, a military aircraft designed to carry tanks, gingerly guided the large containers onto three flatbed trucks, which carried them with a police escort to their new home: the Mystic Aquarium.

“This is just thrilling,” Dr. Allison Tuttle, a veterinarian who oversees zoological operations at the aquarium.

Inside each container was a beluga whale, a doughy, melon-headed mammal whose population has fallen to dangerous lows in some of their native habitats in the Arctic Ocean.

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Their arrival marked the end of a long journey for the white whales — and aquarium officials.

For nearly a decade, through protests and legal challenges, the aquarium had sought to bring five belugas to this historic whaling port on Long Island Sound. The dispute centered on the ethics of research on animals poorly suited to confinement, and whether the benefits of studying them in a controlled environment should override concerns about animal cruelty.

It took the approval of the US and Canadian governments for the young whales to start the arduous trip from their home in a crowded tank at an aquarium in Ontario to join three aging belugas, whose sleek grace and playfulness have long made them the aquarium’s marquee attraction.

While the new belugas will be exhibited in the aquarium’s 750,000-gallon pool, federal regulators have forbidden them from being featured in public shows or touched by visitors. They can only be displayed in their tank, designed to mimic their Arctic habitat, where the public can view them from above and through large windows below the surface.

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Mystic Aquarium employees pushed a wheeled cart containing a beluga whale as it arrived at its new home on Friday evening.
Mystic Aquarium employees pushed a wheeled cart containing a beluga whale as it arrived at its new home on Friday evening.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Aquarium officials said the whales will be the subject of research that aims to protect belugas, which are considered threatened or endangered in some areas, and improve conditions in the aquarium in Canada. The conditions at Marineland in Niagara Falls, a zoo and amusement park where the whales were born in captivity, are overcrowded with 47 other belugas.

“They will live a better life here, and they will contribute to the conservation of beluga whales in the wild,” said Steve Coan, president of the aquarium, which is known for its beluga research. “It’s extremely important for the health of these animals. We have to do something to protect them.”

But animal rights groups accuse the aquarium of using research as a pretext for generating more ticket sales at New England’s fourth largest cultural institution, which has seen visits plummet during the pandemic. Last year, only about 350,000 people visited the aquarium, fewer than half the usual attendance.

Connecticut-based Friends of Animals and other groups last fall sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, which had approved Mystic Aquarium’s research permit. In March, a federal judge declined to block the permit, which is valid for five years and prohibits breeding.

Animal rights advocates argued that the belugas’ removal severed their social bonds with whales they grew up with and subjected them to a grueling, daylong journey that required capturing them, hoisting them with cranes out of their tanks, and keeping them for hours in a special sling inside the containers, an ordeal that can be traumatic and even fatal.

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“Mystic is needlessly harming these belugas and threatening their health to further their commercial interests,” said Stephen Hernick, senior attorney for the Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program. “It is wrong to keep belugas or any cetaceans in captivity, because they are highly intelligent, sentient, and social animals who roam great distances in the wild. Captivity harms them greatly.”

A current whale resident watched curiously as a new beluga resident joined their habitat on Friday evening.
A current whale resident watched curiously as a new beluga resident joined their habitat on Friday evening. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Another group, Last Chance for Animals, had urged Canada’s fisheries minister to reject the transfer to Mystic, noting that that the juveniles could be subject to breeding after the aquarium’s permit expires. Exporting the whales removed them from the protections of a recently passed Canadian law that prohibits their breeding and phases out their captivity.

“The whales have much better legal protection in Canada,” said Miranda Desa, a lawyer for the Los Angeles-based group. “By removing the whales from the protection of Canadian law, they will be left vulnerable to breeding and thereby perpetuating the cycle of captivity of these majestic creatures.”

Officials at the aquarium, who declined to say how much they paid Marineland for the whales but acknowledged raising millions of dollars to obtain and maintain them, said their primary goal is to help belugas.

“Our intention is to be good citizens and stewards,” Coan said.

He also acknowledged that he still hopes to persuade government officials to eventually allow the aquarium to let the whales — which are between 5 and 6 years old, and include four females — breed.

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“Five years is a long way away,” he said. “We believe that there’s a difference between breeding and allowing animals to procreate, and we certainly have a view on that.”

Ultimately, they would prefer to let nature take its course, aquarium researchers said, rather than engaging in artificial insemination or other inducements to promote breeding. Belugas typically begin breeding at age 10. The Mystic juveniles are about 10 feet long and weigh between 760 and 1,200 pounds. They can grow to be as long as 18 feet and weigh up to 3,500 pounds, and live as long as 70 years.

Dismissing allegations that the aquarium is seeking to profit off the belugas, Coan estimated it will cost as much as $6 million a year to care for them, not including the cost of procuring them.

“That’s hardly a profit motive,” he said.

Learning more about the mammals is crucial and worth the costs, as ocean temperatures warm and natural habitat for belugas declines, aquarium researchers said.

The current beluga residents of Mystic Aquarium swam in their tank on Friday afternoon.
The current beluga residents of Mystic Aquarium swam in their tank on Friday afternoon. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In a controlled setting, scientists can study how the whales respond to changes in the chemistry and salinity of water, marine sounds, and other stresses in the wild, while closely monitoring their immune and metabolic systems, they said.

“It’s really the ability to have reference values of health to compare with wild populations, and to develop novel technologies that will help with assessing the health of those in the wild,” said Dr. Tracy Romano, the aquarium’s chief scientist and vice president of research.

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While some critics acknowledged the potential benefits of the research, they said it could be done better in environments, such as specialized marine sanctuaries, that allow the whales a life closer to what nature intended.

“We cannot remotely provide for them adequately in a relatively small concrete tank,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

After the first three whales arrived at the Groton-New London Airport on Friday evening, they received a police escort to the aquarium, where dozens of staff greeted them with a round of applause.

In a parking lot, staff fitted the whales in special harnesses, which they attached to a crane that lifted the wiggling and flopping creatures into a wheeled cart. Collectively, the three belugas — known as Jetta, Havana, and Kharabali — weigh 2,504 pounds.

From there, staff held the whales’ flukes as they were wheeled into the aquarium. One of them had blood streaming from a wound to its right fluke, which aquarium officials later described as the reopening of a “superficial scrape ... it had previously sustained.”

“It is minor and should heal very quickly,” said Tuttle, head of the aquarium’s zoological operations, who oversaw the whales’ departure from Ontario.

Another crane hoisted the whales into their new habitats, where they were kept in a separate pool from the belugas that have lived there for years. The older whales pressed against a glass wall as the newcomers arrived.

When the final whale was lowered into the tank, the staff gave another round of applause.

The remaining two whales were brought on another flight overnight and arrived at the aquarium shortly before dawn on Saturday.

Tuttle was elated.

“It was an emotional moment watching them leave,” she said. “After years of working on this, it feels like everything has come full circle.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.