In an unprecedented effort, the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) orchestrated the release of ten young orcas and a dozen belugas who had been destined for a life in captivity having been illegally caught a year ago. Starting in July the orcas were trucked and barged in groups of two or three over hundreds of miles to be returned to their ocean home. (Background information can be found here). The belugas were moved in two groups of six.
Whale experts from around the world freely gave advice, and organizations such as Greenpeace readily participated when they had the opportunity.
Satellite tags were applied to most of the orcas and some of the belugas, which has allowed the scientists to follow at least one member in each group. The scientists plan to follow Harju and Forest for a few days and hopefully will have updates on the rest, but as of August 25th, the young Alexsandra was only about 15 miles (25 km) from the two other orcas she was released with. Orcas have been documented to swim 100 miles in a day, so she may have caught up with the others already if that was her intention.
Animals traveled 1800 km from the Srednaya Bay of Primorsky Krai to the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, which lasted 5 days. Despite the difficulties associated with the difficult traffic situation in Primorye, caused by long rains, high water and rising water levels in the Amur River, the [whales] were successfully delivered to the place of release.
The two killer whales, a female named Harju and a male named Forest, were released together from a specially designed pen on a catamaran after they were massaged to restore their muscle tone.
They circled for some time near the shore, and then together went into the northern part of the bay. Their behavior is currently being monitored by VNIRO scientists who will accompany animals in the first days of their stay in the wild.
After the killer whales moved away from the place of release to a safe distance, the preparation and release of beluga whales began.
They were released alternately directly near the coast. First, the crane lowered the stretcher in which the animal was located on a soft mat on the shore. Here, scientists took measurements of belugas, took a blood, tissue and [breath] analysis, after which the crane lifted the stretcher and lowered it into the water near the shore to a depth of 1.5 m, where two trainers helped the animal to get out of the stretcher so as not to damage the fins.
The belugas dove underwater and although it was impossible to see them, two of the larger whales have satellite tags and can be followed by scientists.
There are approximately 80 belugas left in the pens in Strednaya, all of which are scheduled for release before winter sets in.