75 beluga whales to get a boat ride to freedom in Russia

Captive belugas held in icy pens last winter are headed to freedom.
The All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography” (VNIRO) has made arrangements to release the last of the nearly 100 belugas and 10 killer whales into the wild after their capture was found to be illegal. While the previous releases involved long transport by container trucks and barges, weather conditions have caused the fisheries service to find a different path to freedom for the remaining whales.


[Background information can be found here, and updates on the condition of the captive orcas and belugas now living in the wild can be found here].


September 26, 2019


The research vessel VNIRO will take on board a group of belugas from Srednyaya Bay.

Animals are planned to be delivered to the Sakhalin Gulf to the coast of the Khabarovsk Territory in the area where beluga whales and killer whales were previously released as part of re-adaptation and release of marine mammals into the natural environment. The road from the bay to the place of release will take about three days.
The change in the method of transportation and release of animals was caused by the flood on the Amur River, the deterioration of roads in the Khabarovsk Territory due to heavy rains and the closure of a number of sections after flooding, which did not allow transportation according to the established scheme “motor transport / barge / motor vehicle”. Because of this, the beginning of the next operation to release animals had to be constantly postponed.
“Science has already had successful experience in releasing animals from a vessel,” said Alexey Baitalyuk, deputy director of the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, head of the Pacific branch of VNIRO. – We expect that the whole process will be successful and no weather conditions will hinder us. Transportation of animals will begin in the very near future. ”
Special baths have been prepared for belugas, in which they will feel comfortable throughout the entire route. The animals will be accompanied by specialists from the Pacific branch of VNIRO and veterinarians who will monitor their health.
VNIRO Press Service

Satellite tracks of two of the other freed belugas 9 Sept 2019, in the region where the remaining whales will be released.

Image credit: VNIRO

A second freed captive orca has found her family; updates on the other released Russian whales

Mixed news on the young captive orcas who were released back into the wild in Russia – while a second released orca appears to be traveling with wild killer whales, the group of four seems to have disbanded somewhat. Two of the released belugas are in an area with wild whales.

Zina with wild orcas 9 Sept 2019. Photo Credit: VNIRO

On the plus side, scientists of the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) and the Institute of Ecology and Evolution Severtsov Russian Academy of Sciences (IPEE RAS) have determined that a second released captive orca is now traveling with wild whales.  From VNIRO:

During monitoring conducted on catamarans in the Shantar Islands, scientists observed a family of wild killer whales off the coast of the South Shantar archipelago. The group had at least 14 killer whales, which they managed to photograph. After a careful analysis of the photographs and their comparison with the photograph and description of animals from Srednyaya Bay, it was noted that one of the killer whales in the group has characteristic scars of the selected mark. Individual signs made it possible to identify this killer whale as Zina, released in the second installment on August 6. The animal got rid of the [satellite tag] that it was set upon release.
“Some killer whales from the wild family in which Zina was met were previously identified, included in photo catalogs and there is biological information on them,” said Vyacheslav Bizikov, deputy director for research at VNIRO. “They are classified as a carnivorous ecotype.”

The first orca who was accepted by a group of wild whales, a young female named Vasilievna, was documented hunting and sharing food with them on August 20th.
With only tracking data, it’s difficult to assess the situation of the group of four (Alexandra, Tikhon, Zoya, and Gayka) who reportedly stayed together for 10 days. The young male, Tikhon, has traveled south either alone or in the company of wild whales. The three females remain in the same general area either together, or within an easy day’s travel distance (approximately 50 miles (80 km) from each other).
Alexandra’s path (green dot with the number 3) coincides with another orca’s track so they may have traveled together at the last location on September 7th.
Because visual documentation hasn’t been reported, all we know for certain is that they are near each other in the same area as wild orcas and appear to be thriving. But that alone is good news!

According to the latest data from satellite tags, killer whales from the third issue of Zoya, Tikhon and Gadget, as well as the younger female Alexander from the second issue, who joined them, moved together for about 10 days. Then the group broke up and now three females Zoya, Gadget and Alexander are located near the island of Feklistov of the Shantar archipelago, the male Tikhon went to the Tugursky Bay.
Killer whales Kharya and Forest, having traveled from Cape Perovsky past Sakhalin Island to the open sea, returned to Sakhalin Gulf.

Forest and Kharya location 9 Sept 2019. Image Credit: VNIRO

Little has been reported on the 12 belugas who were released, but tracking data shows that at least two of them are in the same area as Tikhon:

Two belugas from the fourth issue with [tags] are also located in the Sakhalin Gulf. In this area, scientists and fishermen noted the appearance of wild killer whales and beluga whales. (Press – Service VNIRO).

Location of two belugas 9 Sept 2019.  Image Credit: VNIRO

Elephants rescued as calves return from the wild to show off their babies

Loijuk and baby Lili, accompanied by nannies Ithumbah and Naserian. Photo Credit: Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

What a joyous surprise!
On September 1st the once rescued African elephant Loijuk returned to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where she had been rescued as a calf 14 years previously. With her was her adorable calf Lili, just hours old, and two other once-rescued elephants who she has chosen to be nannies for the calf.

Together, along with other wild or re-wilded elephants, this stitched together family will protect and guide Lily through her life, all through the protective and watchful eyes of the Trust. The rescue organization has documented 31 other calves born to rescued mothers, and untold numbers sired by rescued bulls with wild mothers.
Like the recently freed orcas, these calves have shown the world that rescued wildlife can be returned to the wild to live life as nature intended.

From the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust:

Loijuk when she was rescued in 2006. Photo Credit: Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

To bear witness to Loijuk becoming a mum, after we spent so many years performing a parental role and preparing her for a wild life, is the greatest reward for our endeavours.
Moments like these are precious and priceless. We are grateful to all of our foster parents and donors for your support, which enables us to be there for orphans in need, so that in the fullness of time, they can live the lives they deserve.
With mum Loijuk by her side and protective nannies Naserian and Ithumbah also on-hand, as well as our ever-watchful field teams looking out for them all, Lili has a bright future ahead of her and we look forward to watching this little girl grow up in the wild.
To learn more about our Orphans’ Project, visit https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/projects/orphans


4 released captive orcas in Russia are hunting together, including little Alexandra

It looks as though Alexandra, the youngest killer whale to be released, has joined three of the other freed orcas in the Shantar Islands area of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Of the 10 killer whales who were returned to the sea where they had been captured, only Alexandra needed initial support following her release.
She had become separated from the other two orcas in her group (Vitas and Nut) and wound up hanging around fishing boats where she was fed. Then she headed over a hundred miles to the north, where she continued to pluck the occasional fish from nets and appeared to hunt successfully on her own.
But what great news; Alexandra has returned south and joined up with Tikhon, Zoya, and Gadget who were released a few weeks after her. If she stays with them, her chances of survival are as high as the others.

Map of locations
Alexandra, Tikhon, Zoya, and Gadget together in the Shantar Islands (Sea of Okhotsk) Image Credit: VNIRO

It’s inspiring to follow these intelligent animals as they adjust to life back in the wild – studies of wild orca populations have shown that their cultures and dialects vary and at this point, we don’t know how those factors play into which whales remain together. Gender, age, personality, food abundance, locating family members, and changing ocean conditions may also contribute to the ultimate success of each whale.
Genetic tests showed that these are mammal-eating type orcas…yet they had been fed fish while they were in captivity. Will they expand their dietary preferences now? Or go back to eating the seals and sea lions of the region exclusively? The winter conditions in that region are challenging, and it is most likely that they will select the more calorie rich mammals, but a lot depends on what they can find.
One of the first released orcas, Vasilyevna, has found a place in a group of wild whales, where she was observed hunting seals and food sharing with others. She was released with Lyokha, but his satellite tag stopped working and there are no reports on his location.
There are no updates as yet on Forest and Kharya, the last to be released.