Three orcas – killer whales – were loaded onto trucks at a controversial facility in Russia’s Far East on Thursday, as the country continues to release animals from what the media have dubbed a “whale jail”.

The secluded facility near the town of Nakhodka contains dozens of killer and beluga whales which were caught to be sent to aquariums, but are now to be set free after a global outcry and intervention by President Vladimir Putin.

Last month two killer whales and six belugas were released after a six-day trip north to the Sea of Okhotsk, which involved driving the trucks with a police escort and then shipping the animals on a barge.

Workers use a crane to lift a whale from a pen in Srednyaya Bay, near Vladivostok. Russian officials have launched an operation to release nearly 100 illegally captured whales held in cramped pens and intended for commercial aquariums. Photo: Vitaliy Ankov / Sputnik / AFP

The three whales loaded onto trucks on Thursday are expected to be released following a similar journey.

A correspondent at the scene observed employees removing the glass roof of the floating dock housing the killer whale pens.

Divers could be seen going into the pens and using nets to move the animals onto a fabric stretcher with holes cut for the flippers. The animals were then lifted and placed into containers with water on three trucks.

The orcas remaining in the pens and the beluga whales kept nearby could be heard vocalizing loudly during the procedure and splashed the water.

Journalists were not permitted to enter the premises. Environmentalists and marine mammal experts have complained that the previous release was carried out with no independent oversight.

No observers were invited to the loading on Thursday, said Dmitry Lisitsyn, coordinator of Sakhalin Environmental Watch, a group which has campaigned for the release and successfully sued over Russia’s practice of catching wild orcas.

Russia is the only country capturing wild orcas and belugas and selling them to aquariums, a controversial practice that has continued due to legal loopholes.

The controversy came to a head when images of what the media have nicknamed the “whale jail” were published this year.

The “whale jail” in Srednyaya Bay as employees got ready to load three orcas into special tanks on trucks to carry them to a release site on the Sea of Okhotsk coast this week. Photo: AFP

Scientists have advised that all 10 killer whales held in the facility should be released together as a group, as they have formed relationships in the months since their capture while older orcas could teach the youngest how to hunt.

The All-Russian Fisheries and Oceanography Institute (VNIRO), which is coordinating the releases, said the cost of such an operation would be prohibitive.

The facility near Nakhodka still holds five killer whales and 81 belugas.

Scientists have advised that the animals be released during the summer, which would make transportation far easier and leave the possibility for killer whales to find the families from which they were captured.

Fishing firm fined

In early June, a Russian court fined the fishing firm for illegally capturing killer whales and keeping them in the crowded “jail” in Srednyaya Bay.

The company supplies sea mammals to aquariums and is one of four firms keeping the whales near the port town of Nakhodka.

Media have nicknamed it a “whale jail” due to its crammed pens and the company’s controversial plans to sell the animals to aquariums in nearby China.

A district court in  Vladivostok ruled that the White Whale company violated fishing regulations when it captured three killer whales, also called orcas, and ordered it to pay a fine of 28.1 million rubles ($432,000), news agencies and activists said.

Regional environmental activist Dmitry Lisitsyn, coordinator of Sakhalin Watch group, said he expected similar decisions about the rest of the killer whales and eventually the belugas.

The fate of the Russian orcas and belugas – highly intelligent and social marine mammals – has scandalized the international community, with scientists and celebrities calling for their release.

A worker feeds an orca in the enclosure in Srednyaya Bay. Photo: Vitaliy Ankov / Sputnik / AFP

Whales massaged

Whales were massaged and lathered in special balm as they rode toward the ocean in a motorcade after their release, the institute overseeing the operation said later.

“The hardest thing in the release was that nobody has done this before,” said the director of the All-Russian Fisheries and Oceanography Institute (VNIRO), Kirill Kolonchin.

“From the point of view of science, this is a fantastic experience” that will provide information about how the animals behave following an extended period in captivity, he added.

The whales were driven on trucks for 760 kilometers to the river port of Khabarovsk before being loaded onto boats for the second leg of the trip.

“To smooth out the road journey, we asked traffic police to help and accompany us with flashing lights to prevent stops,” Kolonchin said.

“We really worried about killer whales being injured, so two people rode in each tank around the clock, holding the animals to make sure they don’t inhale water,” he said.

“Special creams were developed to prevent their skin from being damaged, water was changed, we had sea salt and ice that was added to the water,” he said.

Before their release into the ocean, “veterinarians and coaches massaged the killer whales, rubbing their tails and flippers for four to six hours,” Vyacheslav Bizikov, deputy director of VNIRO, said.

Brother sister bond

The two killer whales were brother and sister who had formed an attachment, and were communicating during the trip, he said.

“Now they are already over 400 kilometers from the release site,” he said. Their satellite trackers indicate that “they are searching” for something – perhaps their families.

Bizikov said three to four more killer whales would start their journey to freedom next week.

Many scientists and activists criticized VNIRO for keeping the details of the release secret, not taking any observers on the trip and only freeing a small group of animals rather than all of them together, which would boost their survival odds.

Kolonchin said the institute settled on a solution that delivered the animals to the right location while being affordable, because nobody offered any help.

“We could not release all animals together – we don’t have the funds,” Bizikov said.

The institute took advice from foreign experts like ocean conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau, but it had to be “adapted to our Russian reality”, he added.

Orangutan thief jailed

Meanwhile, in another win for wildlife enthusiasts, a Russian tourist who attempted to smuggle a drugged orangutan out of Indonesia in his suitcase was sentenced to a year in prison on Thursday.

Judges also ordered Andrei Zhestkov, who claimed he wanted to keep the animal as a pet, to pay a 10 million rupiah ($700) fine or serve two additional months in prison.

The 28-year-old was detained at Bali’s Denpasar airport in March while passing through a security screening before his flight to Russia.

Suspicious officers stopped him and opened his luggage to find a two-year-old male orangutan sleeping inside a rattan basket.

Officials believed Zhestkov drugged the ape with allergy pills before putting it inside the basket which also contained baby formula and blankets.

Police also found two live geckos and five lizards inside the suitcase. Zhestkov told authorities that the protected species was gifted by his friend, another Russian tourist who bought the primate for $3,000 from a street market in Java.

He claimed his friend, who has since left Indonesia, convinced him he could bring the orangutan home as a pet.

Orangutans are a critically endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with only about 100,000 remaining worldwide.

Agence France-Presse