Imprisonment for ‘White Whales’?

The issue of Beluga whale importations to the United States has been pushed into the limelight.
The Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to import 18 wild-caught Belugas from Russia- an action which has sparked a wide-spread public outcry.

William Hurley, the Georgia Aquarium’s chief zoological officer, was quoted in the Atlantic Journal, stating: “We want to fix this mess so that your children and grandchildren can see Beluga whales.”
But is conservation really the aquarium’s goal when it comes to this possible importation?
And, perhaps more importantly, is this how we want our “grandchildren” to experience Beluga whales?

We interviewed Alex Lewis from Cyber Whale Warriors about the Postcard Writing campaign, urging people to “Tell the GA Aquarium NO to the import of 18 wild-caught Beluga Whales!” and we also interviewed former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg who used to work with captive Beluga whales. 

Blue Freedom: Can you tell us about your campaign, Alex?

Alex Lewis: Our campaign is simple and easy – anyone can participate across the globe. We are simply asking people to send a postcard from your hometown to the Georgia Aquarium to express your feelings on the Beluga import. You can be as creative as you like and perhaps make your own postcards or even send as many as you want. The idea is to show the President of the Aquarium just how many people oppose this import. We are also encouraging people to leave their return address to possibly receive a reply!
Check out more postcards HERE

Blue Freedom: What inspired you to start a campaign to protest the possible
import of Belugas?

Alex Lewis: I held a protest at the Georgia Aquarium on July 21st with the help of Free the Atlanta 11 and Georgia Animal Rights and Protection after I heard the news of the possible import. Free the Atlanta 11 first brought this information to light. I decided that I was not going to sit back without letting my voice be heard (especially since I was going to be in Atlanta that week!) and so I got as many people involved as possible. The protest had such a large turnout, I was shocked (we did not get an exact headcount but it’s estimated to be at least 40 people). Upon returning home to Dallas I came to the conclusion that there was more I could do for these Belugas. It was clear to me that people from across the globe could get involved now, before the public comment period, (which is going to be the most important factor in this!) simply by sending a letter. I spoke with Holise Cleveland, who is the mastermind behind Cyber Whale Warriors, and we both agreed that postcards would be the best option. Not only will the Aquarium see where their mail is coming from, but the postal workers, interns, and anyone else who happens upon said postcard will know that there is a major issue at hand. Perhaps we can
educate more people this way.
Blue Freedom: Can you tell us about the possible importation of Beluga whales to the USA?

Alex Lewis: The Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to import 18 wild-caught Beluga Whales from Russia. These Beluga’s are captured cruelly in a “round-up” that happens annually in Russia. Many are separated from their pods and forced to live in holding “pools” before their imports to other facilities. The Georgia Aquarium has spent over $2 million dollars on this effort to import these Belugas, who have been uprooted from all they know, to join other imported Belugas across the United States at other aquariums (not just at the Georgia Aquarium). It is extremely difficult for the U.S. to justify capturing marine mammals and the laws are very strict so the Aquarium has turned to Russia to acquire these beautiful animals. In a few weeks the import-permit application will be published in the Federal Register and you will be able to make an important public-comment pertaining to this awful import.
Blue Freedom: Can you explain what will happen if the permit application for the import goes through?

Alex Lewis: If the permit application for the import goes through, I will be extremely saddened. What kind of example is the U.S. setting for the rest of the world? “We aren’t allowed to capture these animals off of our coasts, so we pay other countries to do it for us?” It’s shameful and it’s a practice that really should be put in the past. I can honestly say that I am hopeful that the application is denied and that we can set a good example to the rest of the world. The Georgia Aquarium needs to better educate the public on just how endangered this species is. That’s why its imperative that every person takes the time to leave a comment on the Federal Register. The more comments the
better. I honestly feel we have a good shot at this if people continue to send postcards and also keep an eye out for notifications for the public-comment period. The best way to stay informed of this is to visit or their facebook page as they will most likely be the first to announce the comment period and will have detailed instructions on how to get through the process.
Blue Freedom: What will happen to the Belugas if the permit application does not go through?

Alex Lewis: Sadly, if the permits do not go through, these Beluga’s most likely won’t be returned to the wild and possibly be taken to other facilities world-wide. The Russians who captured them most likely have other clients who are interested. But really, who’s to say what exactly will happen to them. I will assure you, however, that we will be monitoring the situation very closely should the permit be denied and will continue to make updates. Our efforts to stop all marine mammals in captivity will continue, whether these animals are being held captive in America or Russia, we will continue to fight for their rights.
Blue Freedom: How can people join to help stop the importation?

Alex Lewis: People can join our event first and foremost to get details on where to send postcards here: . We are encouraging
people worldwide to get involved. The next thing people can do is like our page on Facebook for notifications on when to start the public-comment period. As previously stated Free the Atlanta 11 would also be a good site to check out for this.
Blue Freedom: What advice would you give to someone who is debating buying a ticket to see captive Belugas- perhaps at the Georgia Aquarium?

Alex Lewis: The best advice I can give is don’t go. Instead enjoy nature, go outside, play at the park, see a movie if it’s hot or raining. Don’t spend money at the Aquarium because it will encourage them to continue efforts in importing marine mammals and other marine life from other countries. The practice of going to these places is outdated and, quite frankly, a huge waste of money. You will not learn a single thing about these beautiful animals and how they interact in the wild. Instead you will learn about how they live in captivity, and quite honestly that’s not worth knowing about. Gawking at these depressed and unhappy animals is a lousy way to spend your time and your money.

Samantha Berg grew up in Great Neck, NY (Long Island) and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York with a BS in Animal Science in 1989.  In February 1990 she was hired at Sea World of Florida and she worked there until the end of August 1993. During her time at SeaWorld, she worked at the Whale and Dolphin Stadium, Shamu Stadium and Sea Lion and Otter Stadium. Samantha is a licensed and board certified acupuncturist and she runs an Acupuncture Center with her husband, Kevin Meddleton, in Palmer, Alaska. (

We asked Samantha about her experience with Beluga whales and about what life is like for them in captivity.

Blue Freedom: Can you tell us a little about your experiences of working with Belugas in captivity?

Samantha Berg: The Belugas were the first animals I was approved to get in the water with at SeaWorld in Orlando. They were my favorite animals at the Whale and Dolphin Stadium. I thought of them as big Pillsbury dough boys. They were not flashy or fast like the dolphins, and they were incredibly gentle and playful. The show sequence that featured the Belugas was an underwater ballet with two trainers in SCUBA gear, each doing a “foot-push” with a beluga around the main show pool. A variety of behaviors (tricks!) would be performed underwater in front of the glass in the main pool so the audience could watch. Everything from somersaults to spins to mimic behaviors (head shakes yes or no, wiggling, blowing air out of their blowholes), with the finale being both belugas poking their their heads out of the water and leaning on the glass next to the trainers and making the whistling noises that have earned them the title “Canaries of the sea”.

One thing I loved to do was to put on SCUBA gear while all of the Belugas were swimming in the main pool. The trainers nick-named the Belugas “buzzers” because you could actually feel the effect of the Belugas echolocating on you underwater. It felt like an all over buzzy/tingly sensation. Belugas can make sounds so intense that they can kill or stun fish, so it’s interesting to feel the effects of that powerful vibration as it travels through your body. It was also possible to hear a variety of clicks, whistles and chirps underwater as well. The experience of being in the water with these majestic and graceful creatures never lost its fascination for me – it was mesmerizing to sit on the bottom of the pool and just listen to the sounds and watch as the Belugas swam around me.

My favorite photo from SeaWorld is a picture of me kissing Shadow, a male Beluga whale. (See photo on the right.) I’m in the water next to him and I’m leaning over to kiss his melon which is is simultaneously pushing towards me. So my face ends up being totally squished by his head. It’s a fond memory but it’s also incredibly bittersweet considering what I know about the tragically shortened and socially deprived lives of captive Beluga whales. Shadow was captured on July 18th, 1987. When I worked with him, I had no idea that he had been swimming in the wild as recently as two and a half years prior to my first interaction with him. Shadow died on February 6th, 1998 after 11 years in captivity – he lived a mere fraction of the time he could have lived in the wild.

Blue Freedom: Living in Alaska, you’ve seen Belugas in the wild- can you tell us about the contrast between wild and captive Belugas?

Samantha Berg: I’ve seen pods of wild Beluga whales in the Cook Inlet and in the Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage. Unfortunately the Cook Inlet Beluga whales are in decline. The major decline, from 1300 whales in 1970 down to 280 whales currently, has taken place in the past 15 years. In 1994, when the population was still 650 individuals, I would often see Belugas frolicking in the ocean while I was rollerblading or biking along the Coastal Trail in Anchorage,

which parallels the Cook Inlet. By 2000, it was rare to see any Belugas. In fact, the Cook Inlet Belugas are considered critically endangered and are under the protection of the United States Endangered Species act.

However, despite the fact that Beluga whales are threatened in the wild by a variety of factors – water pollution, declining fish stocks, boat traffic, polar bears, etc. – the animals in the wild still have it much better than their captive counterparts.

Belugas in the wild are highly social – they are often found in groups of 100 or more. In zoos and aquariums, minus a few exceptions, it’s rare to find more than 3-4 non-family member Beluga whales together.

Belugas also have an amazing ability to find the tiniest slivers of open water amidst a dense ice pack using their echolocation abilities. In contrast, captive Belugas living in barren concrete and glass tanks are subjected to sounds bouncing off these artificial surfaces all the time – and it must severely limit their ability to use their echolocation skills. Not to mention how disturbing vibrations bouncing off of these unnatural structures must be for an animal whose primary navigation tool is sound.

Additionally, although Beluga whales do give birth in captivity, it’s rather rare for their offspring to survive. And most captive Beluga whales only live about 20 to 30 years in captivity, while their wild counterparts routinely make it into their 60’s or older.
Blue Freedom: What is life like for Belugas in captivity?

Samantha Berg: Just like other captive marine mammals, Belugas’ lives in captivity are severely deprived. They are provided with a fraction of the space that they would be accustomed to in the wild, they are forced to eat dead fish which is limited in nutrients and, at SeaWorld, they are required to perform as many as seven shows per day.

Because Belugas are so gentle, they are popular animals to use for guest interactions – so during the Whale and Dolphin Show, a guest wearing waders would be escorted into the water to “meet” a Beluga whale under the supervision of a trainer. Belugas are often used for swim-with programs at Marine Parks and this is highly stressful for them to have many unfamiliar people getting in the water with them every day without the ability to get away if they don’t want the contact.

Belugas in captivity live about half as long as wild belugas. All four of the Belugas I worked with at the Whale and Dolphin Stadium in the early 90’s – Shadow, Spooky, AJ and Bandit – are dead now. Spooky gave birth to one stillborn calf and Bandit’s calf lived less than four years. I can’t speak for other facilities but the water temperature at SeaWorld was anywhere from 68 – 72 degrees Fahrenheit – much warmer than Belugas would ever encounter in the wild except perhaps during calving season. The water temperature, along with other stressors of captivity such as poor nutrition, limited space, chemically treated man-made salt water and unnatural social structures, likely contributed to suppressed immune systems and early demise.

Blue Freedom: What kind of message do you think importing wild belugas to the USA would send to the pubic?

Samantha Berg: The message this sends is that the US captive marine mammal industry can do anything they want despite the rules that recommend that they must take animals from other facilities that are already in captivity if they are available, rather than going out and capturing more wild animals. In a way, this is a blatant brush off to the regulatory agencies that monitor the captive marine mammal industry and proves that we must have stricter laws and enforcement when it comes to captivity. The government agency that monitors captive marine mammals once they are caught is APHIS, which is so understaffed that they can barely make one visit per year to each Marine Park in the country – thus the captive industry is effectively self-regulated, which should not be allowed to continue for the sake of all the animals currently in captivity and the animals that may end up there.

The good news is that when the Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to import eighteen Beluga whales from Russia, it created quite an impressive public outcry, and that action is currently pushing the issues of the inadequacies of public display facilities squarely into the lime-light. Movies such as Stan Minasian’s “A Fall From Freedom” and David Kirby’s book, “Death At SeaWorld” are becoming more popular and more widely seen because of the public’s frustration with the Georgia Aquarium’s actions. So, in a way, the current controversy may be a good thing if more people wake up and start thinking about whether or not large, intelligent mammals with highly complex social structures belong in tiny tanks at all.

It’s up to you to stop this import. Join the postcard campaign to add your voice.

“Our campaign is cheap and easy to do. Purchase or make your own postcard, mail to the address stated in our event (or on our website here: State your feelings about the import, for example “The Lewis family says NO to Beluga import!” or “Please don’t import 18 wild-caught Belugas”, and send away. Some people are sending several a week, which is awesome, and some people are just sending one which is sufficient though! We also have an album on our Facebook page of the home-made postcards, and I might add, we have some great artists sending in their beautiful work.

The effort to stop this import can become global but we need as many people as possible to get involved, follow our updates and send postcards. We can stop this, we just need to come together and let our voices be heard.

**The public comment period is now open for those who oppose the import of 18 wild-caught Beluga whales. The link to that is here: #Stop #Import of 18 wild-caught Belugas to the US here:!submitComment;D=NOAA-NMFS-2012-0158-0001
It takes about five minutes and these Beluga’s are depending on us. We CAN block this import so its extremely important that we share this around, tweeted and get as many people to make a public comment as possible. These Belugas deserve a better life, let’s rally around and do what’s best for these beautiful animals!”

Photo credit:
Thank you to Samantha Berg, Churchill Wild,
Cyber Whale Warriors, and other sites for photos.