When the world learned last winter about the existence of a watery prison holding dozens of whales in Russia’s Far East, environmentalists such as Oganes Targulyan feared the creatures were doomed.
Targulyan, a longtime campaigner for Greenpeace based in Moscow, says the likelihood of the whales surviving a prolonged stay in iced-over pens seemed remote. The facility, located in a bay near the port town of Nakhodka, became known worldwide as Russia’s whale jail.
But seven months after a promise by Russian President Vladimir Putin to free the 97 whales, the last of the creatures are now swimming free.
Targulyan admits he’s probably more surprised than anyone by the positive outcome.
“We can see from satellite [tracking] marks that some orcas have joined their wild brothers and sisters and the belugas are moving and not in a bad situation,” he told CBC News.
“We expected it would be much worse.”
The return of 10 orcas and 87 belugas to the wild represents the largest release of captive cetaceans ever.
At a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Russian scientists and biologists praised the operation, but also expressed relief that the most difficult phase was finally over.
In addition to the logistical challenges of transporting whales hundreds of kilometres by truck and by barge so they can return to the spot in the sea where they were captured, there was concern some of the animals wouldn’t survive the stress of the trip.
“There was no such experience anywhere in the world,” said Kirill Kolonchin, director of the Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, which co-ordinated the mass release.
“It was real victory of science and a victory for the ecological movement, and we are very glad it was completed. None of the animals were harmed and they are all alive.”
The whale jail saga began late in 2018, when a conglomerate of four Russian fishing companies obtained legal permission from the Russian government to capture the whales.
It appears the initial plan was to turn a huge profit by selling the creatures to marine parks in China, although the companies have never acknowledged this publicly.
Video gathered by environmentalists last winter showed some of the whales struggling to breathe in ice-caked water. The footage sparked a national and international backlash, prompting the Kremlin to order the creatures freed.
The operation to release the whales unfolded over six months and was almost military-like in its execution.
The Russian team decided the best chance of success was to return the orcas to the waters where they were captured, in the Sea of Okhotsk, more than 1,900 kilometres north of the whale jail, located in a bay near the port town of Nakhodka.
Over the course of the summer, two to three orcas at a time would begin their journey. Each animal was lifted in a sling from its pen and put onto tractor trailer, equipped with a giant tub filled with water, and driven hundreds of kilometres north to the Amur River. There, the tubs were loaded onto a barge for a six-night trip winding down the river before finally reaching the ocean.
At times, the journey by truck was so bumpy, workers had to climb into the tubs to stroke the orcas to try to keep them calm.
The Russian teams also had to deal with floods and bad weather that delayed the transport of dozens of belugas and even threatened to scuttle their release entirely.
“We had no possibility to make a mistake, it was very hard,” Kolunchin said of the pressure his team felt to succeed.
WATCH: The whales’ long and challenging journey back to the sea.
Previous attempts to re-integrate captive whales into nature have seen mixed success.
The most notable involved the famous killer whale Keiko, star of the Disney movie Free Willy, who was freed from an Icelandic aquarium in 2002, but died a year later after failing to adapt to life in the wild.
With the Russian whales, there were grave concerns about the ability of the creatures to fend for themselves and re-integrate with other pods after spending a year trapped in the pens and having their food provided for them.
Some of the belugas were only a few months old when they were captured and taken from their families. A video posted online showed one recently freed whale swimming alone and erratically, fuelling concerns the animal may not be able to feed itself.
“We can’t be 100 per cent sure,” Kolonchin said of the belugas’ chances of survival.
“But we tried to divide them into groups where there are younger ones and older ones, and it’s why we decided to release a big group of 50 simultaneously in a place where they can find good fish.”
The Russian government asked renowned international oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famous French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, and American whale biologist Charles Vinick for their input on how to handle the unique situation.
“It was a remarkable achievement and we should recognize that,” Vinick told CBC News in an interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“At the same time, we do need more information. We need to understand what has been successful and what has not, from a scientific standpoint, so we can learn from this.”
Vinick says the crucial task now is to continue to monitor the whales.
As for the companies that caught the whales, they were reportedly fined $2.5 million US by the Russian government for catching animals that were too young, but fisheries officials then decided they were also the only companies in the area with the expertise to return the whales to the wild.
So, in a bizarre twist, Kolonchin’s agency paid them $5.5 million US to help relocate the whales that they had caught.
Despite what appears to be a largely successful end to the whale jail story, Oganes Targulyan of Greenpeace says the broader question of capturing and selling whales remains unresolved.
“For this year and next year, there is no legal permission for catching whales,” he said, noting the Russian government has ruled that conservation requirements dictate that no whales can be taken.
But beyond that, he says, the story of the whale jail could be repeated, as the legislation allowing whales to be captured for “science” remains on the books.
“It is possible to apply again and again. Even orcas. There is no ban.”