Researcher talks about life of white whales in captivity

Researcher talks about life of white whales in captivity

14 January 2013

Lev Mukhametov, a leading researcher at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences, talks about the life of white whales in captivity.


There have recently been many reports about dolphinariums where white whales are kept. Why are these whales being moved to zoos?

There are 19 permanent and several mobile dolphinariums in Russia, and only two of them do not have white whales. White whales take part in performances alongside bottle-nosed dolphins. There are no other dolphins at Russian dolphinariums so far. Black Sea bottle-nosed dolphins are listed as an endangered species in Russia’s Red Data Book, and so the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources does not issue permits to catch them for public dolphinariums. The dolphins that were caught before the clampdown have had offspring, but not enough for all dolphinariums, especially new ones. This is why we have started catching white whales in the past 15 to 20 years.


The white whale is an Arctic cetacean that lives in all of Russia’s northern seas from Norway to Japan. White whales are so populous that the small indigenous northern people of Russia are allowed to hunt more than 1,000 of them every year. However, they only kill about 100 white whales. The ethnic groups who live in Alaska, northern Canada and western Greenland annually catch 2,000 to 2,500 white whales.


How much does transportation affect white whales? Do they adapt to captivity quickly? Are they comfortable in dolphinariums?

There are both good and bad dolphinariums in Russia, but most of them are quite good in terms of the conditions they create for sea animals, including the white whale. Comfort is vital for white whales. The quality of their transportation depends on the standards of a given dolphinarium and the skills of its personnel. For example, our organisation has successfully transported white whales to long distances, including to Argentina, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, as well as other, closer places.


What are the criteria for catching white whales?

The selection depends on what we plan to do with them. If we plan to simply demonstrate white whales in aquariums with underwater windows, we catch adult purely white whales. If we need them for training, we catch young grey whales, aged two to four years, because young animals train much faster than adult ones.


Do you conduct research at dolphinariums, or do you catch white whales to train them for public performances only?

It is possible to conduct research at public dolphinariums, and many of them do. For example, the Utrish Sea Station of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, located between Anapa and Novorossiysk, is a highly respected research centre which has been studying sea mammals, including white whales, for many years.