Thursday, December 11, 2008

New faces surface at Marineland

Wildlife group opposes addition of eight Russian belugas to roster of animals

The St. Catharines Standard - Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Arctic Cove at Marineland had a few new residents move in over the weekend.

Eight Russian belugas - all females - landed in Hamilton Saturday morning after a 13-hour flight aboard a specially modified Aeroflot IL-76 jumbo jet.

From the airport, they made the trip down the QEW to Marineland inside water-filled tanks hauled by tractor-trailers.

"There are two in each tank; they keep each other company," said John Holer, owner and founder of Marineland.

The new additions bring the total number of the belugas at the aquarium to 30.

"We have a large demand of people who want to feed and pet the belugas," Holer said.

Belugas are the friendliest of whales, he said, particularly when dealing with humans.

So far, only one of the eight has shed its youthful grey colour and turned the milky, white colour for which belugas are known.

Belugas are native to Arctic areas. This latest batch of two-and three-year-olds originally came from the Pacific Ocean off the east coast of Russia. They have been housed in a beluga aquarium in the Black Sea since being taken into captivity a couple of years ago.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature last year downgraded the threat of extinction for belugas and estimates the global population at 150,000.

Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck, a national wildlife protection charity, says he is "astounded" by the arrival of the belugas.

"Most aquariums have two, three or maximum five belugas. To have 30, that's unheard of," the biologist said. "They're basically floating marshmallows when in captivity."

Holer said it's more realistic for a child to be able to see and learn about the wildlife by viewing it up close and in person.

"This is the best education you could have."

Laidlaw said people don't want to learn about animals, "rather they want to be entertained."

Although the majority of the belugas at Marineland were born in the wild,

Marineland has been managed to breed a number of the whales, with Eve and Gemini born this past summer.

Over the next few months, the eight new whales will be closely monitored by Marineland's team of veterinarians. For now, they will remain in an isolated area of the Arctic Cove playground while they get accustomed to their new habitat.

None of the belugas have names yet, a task Holer leaves to the individual trainers.

But by the time he opens for business next May, Holer expects the belugas will be ready to entertain the multitude of visitors that flock to the park throughout the summer.

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