The Beluga Whales of the Westman Islands
The Westman Islands (or ‘Vestmannaeyjar’ to Icelanders) has become the home of two charmingly charismatic beluga whales. Arriving just over a year ago, both Little Grey and Little White have taken their retirement from zoological entertainment to Klettsvík bay, joining the first open sea beluga whale sanctuary in the world.
The Westman Islands, in particular, has a fascinating history with harboring beluga whales, including the famous Keiko who was the star of the hit Spielberg classic, Free Willy. So, what is it about Iceland’s waters that have transformed the Westman Islands into an iconic destination for these quirky creatures of the deep?
In this blog, I will cover everything you need to know about the Beluga Whales of Heimaey, why the Westman Islands are a perfect location for these delightful whales, as well as the story of Keiko who also once called our shores home.
Sound good? Then, to pardon the pun, let’s dive in.
The Journey of Little Grey & Little White
Originally from Russian waters, both Little Grey and Little White are 12-year-old female beluga whales who were taken into captivity at a young age.
They became a prominent feature of Shanghai’s Changfeng Ocean World Zoo, renowned to tourists for their inquisitive nature, as well as their stunning size and grace in the water.
A few years ago, it was decided that it was time the pair retired from zoological entertainment. This was coordinated by the Sea Life Trust, a British organisation dedicated to the protection of marine wildlife.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia. CC. Kirill Uyutnov.
However, transferring two 900kg belugas is no simple task. In fact, it resulted in a multi-million pound project to both transport the creatures as well as develop a unique fully functional whale sanctuary on the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands archipelago.
As perhaps the biggest development in captive whale and dolphin care and protection for decades, it was decided the whales would take the 10,000km and 30-hour journey from Shanghai to Klettsvík bay. This journey required a steady combination of planes, ferries and a specially outfitted truck.
Klettsvík bay in Heimaey was chosen as the location for this new beluga whale sanctuary because of its rich marine wildlife as well as its cold coastal waters. Crucially for belugas, these naturally colder waters much better resemble their native sub-Arctic habitat, and getting accustomed to colder waters of a natural sea environment was considered a huge priority for their wellbeing.
Photo credit: e_hafdal. Flickr.
In Shanghai, both whales were kept in enclosed pools due to insufficient natural water temperatures and habitats, hence why the whales couldn’t simply stay in China.
After an arduous journey, the pair arrived safe and sound to their enclosure in Heimaey in June 2019.
However, before being transported to their open-sea pen, the pair had to spend a 40-day quarantine period (not COVID-19 related!) in some specially-built pools to help them both get used to their new conditions as well as allow the handlers to assess both their physical and mental health.
Now released into the sanctuary, both belugas have the full freedom to explore the 32,000m² bay, which offers significant space for them to swim, explore and dive deep.
As a fantastic natural sea inlet, Klettsvík bay also hosts a land side care facility and visitor centre in the town so the whales are kept safe from harm and are regularly monitored by the handlers. Due to the bay’s structure, it also provides strong protection against the often unpredictable Icelandic weather to help form a healthy living habitat for our new belugas.
Sadly, they cannot ever be fully released into the wild, mainly due to their comfort around humans. Regularly, placing creatures of captivity back into the wild frequently ends in failure, and so this sanctuary was built to provide the best possible solution to keep our belugas safe and happy.
The people of Iceland and the residents of the Westman Islands in particular, are overjoyed to have these incredible creatures make their home beside them.
Though, there are only 2 belugas in our whale sanctuary, their quirky and interesting personalities makes them well worth a visit.
Source: Sea Life Trust. Little Grey
By their nature, belugas form strong individual personalities from birth and our quirky neighbours are just the same. Where Little White is quite cautious and quiet, Little Grey is brave and loves nothing more than receiving attention.
According to the Sea Life Trust, Little Grey is a really playful whale. She’s curious and always willing to learn new things. However, that curiosity also brings a strictly mischievous side to her natural personality. In particular, she likes to spit water at the Animal Care Team on site!
Source: Sea Life Trust. Little White
As the more introverted beluga, Little White is shy and more reserved but really loves playing and tends to form strong bonds with her handlers. In essence, she’s a quiet and respectful lovely whale who the team on site absolutely adore.
In terms of size, both belugas are more or less the same. They both weigh around 900kg and measure a length of 4m.
Their day to day diet focuses majorly on Herring and Capelin. Rest assured they are both well fed and cared for Russian gals!
Perhaps the most famous whale of all time is Keiko, who appeared in the hit film, Free Willy.
However, what’s lesser known is how Keiko’s life involved a crazy number of relocations as well as an attempt to reintroduce him back into the wild.
Photo credit: Rausu Hokkaido. Flickr.
Originally captured near Reyðarfjörður in 1979, Keiko was initially sold to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður where he was named Siggi.
Later on, Keiko (or Siggi) was sold to Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada where he first started to perform for the public. During this time he also regrettably developed skin lesions due poor health as well as allegedly not fitting in with the other orcas.
Next, he was sold to Reino Aventura (now known as ‘Six Flags Mexico’) in 1985 where he was moved to Mexico City. It was here that he was given the Japanese name Keiko, meaning ‘lucky one’.
Photo credit: Dawn Brancheau. Flickr.
After his fame soared by being featured in the 1993 film Free Willy, and due to the publicity the whale received, Warner Bros decided to help find him a better home.
This then led to the establishment of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, which eventually resulted in the Oregon Coast Aquarium building a $7m facility to help return him to good health and back to the wild.
The process to then bring Keiko back into the wild started in 1998 when he was finally flown back to Icelandic waters at Klettsvík bay (soon to be the home of our beluga whales).
Back home, he was initially housed in a pen where he underwent training designed to prepare him for being released back into the wild such as supervised swims in the open ocean.
Photo credit: Melvin Nicholson. Flickr.
Keiko then finally returned to the wild in 2002 where he followed some other killer whales from the bay even though he was not part of the pod.
As he was being tracked, it was discovered that only a month later Keiko had made it all the way to Norway’s Skålvik Fjord, where he sought contact with human beings and allegedly allowed some children to ride on his back.
However, in December 2003 at the age of 23 Keiko died in Taknes Bay, Skålvikfjord, Norway. The cause had been put down to pneumonia and served as an example of how dangerous it is to release a creature from captivity back into the wild.
You can book your tickets to the visitor center here, and if you want to take a boat trip to the Klettsvík bay, find tickets here!
To visit our exquisite beluga whales as well as a great variety of other marine life and Puffins, the Sea Life Trust visitor centre is open daily with the following hours:
Monday- Saturday: 10:00 – 17:00
Sunday: 13:00 -17:00
The visitor centre itself is situated in the town of Heimaey very close to the harbour, with around a 2-minute walk from where the passenger ferry docks. However, if you are planning to arrive by plane, then you will need to get a ride into town, which is roughly a 10-minute drive.
It’s a phenomenal experience to watch these gracious and quirky creatures of the deep. It’s peaceful, enlightening and educational and perfect for a great family day out.
Please note, that at the time of writing, there are final preparations ongoing to relocate Little Grey and Little White to the Sea Sanctuary in Klettsvík. As a result, the visitor centre will be closed from June 29 – July 5, 2020.
When you come to visit the belugas of Heimaey, make sure you combine a visit of the beluga sanctuary with a variety of great sightseeing adventures and activities you can partake in the Westman Islands which hosts some of the best things to do in Iceland.
For instance, as the Westman Islands are known as the best place to find Puffins in Iceland, we frequently see plenty of visitors arriving in the summer months under the long days of the midnight sunmaking their way to Stórhöfði lookout. This is perhaps the best and most accessible location on the whole archipelago of islands to watch Puffins from.
Alongside this, there are a huge variety of spectacular hiking trails, as well as a selection of exceptional boat tours around the islands. In particular, you should take a tour to the relatively new island of Surtsey which bizarrely only appeared after an underwater eruption in 1963.
Also, if either geology or history fascinate you then be sure to check out our twin active volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell sitting on the edge of town. You can also check out the fabulous Eldheimar museum for a great insight into the eruption of Eldfell in 1973.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia. CC. Clem23. (Left: Eldfell, Right: Helgafell)
Alternatively, if you’re travelling in the winter months, the Westman Islands is also an incredibly spectacular location to watch the Northern Lights from, with a landscape as if carved for the perfect array of foregrounds for photographers.
A visit to the shores of the Westman Islands can also easily be achieved in a day due to the easily accessible car ferry year-round from Landeyjahöfn. As an off the beaten path trail, you’ll be rewarded by the exploration of this naturally diverse archipelago of islands few get the chance to discover.
So, if you’re planning a trip along the South Iceland, this is a fantastic stop off along the way, giving you a bit of peace and quiet away from the main travellers trails on the mainland. It’s well worth the visit!
Whether you are travelling to Heimaey with the primary purpose of visiting the belugas or have stumbled on this as a rare opportunity to add to your trip to the Westman Islands, you’re in for a treat. The peaceful nature, rugged wilderness and delightful wildlife is what makes a visit to our shores one you won’t soon forget.
Take the opportunity to explore Heimaey and enjoy one of our various tours to uncover the full diverse archipelago of distinct island locations that make up the Westman Islands. It’s a stop off unlike any other full of character, history and geological rarities that you’ll want to tick off your bucket list.
By Chris Ayliffe, Traveo