Orcas and Belugas Inside Russia's Whale Jail Could Soon Be Freed Following Huge Petition

The Russian government has drawn up plans to free around 100 animals from a so-called "whale jail" in the southeast of the country.

Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday steps were being taken to ensure the animals being kept at the facility in Primorye province were brought to safety. Specific details remained unclear, news agency TASS reported.

Last November, it emerged that over 100 orcas and beluga whales were being held in cramped enclosures near Nakhodka city. Owners dubbed the facility a Center for the Preservation of Marine Mammals, but it is believed the animals were destined for Chinese theme parks. In total, some 90 beluga whales and 12 orcas were thought to have been detained, but three of the former and one of the latter escaped, The Associated Press reported citing local prosecutors and environmental activists.

In response, almost 1,000,000 people have signed a petition calling for the animals to be released, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Please sign this petition and join me in speaking out against the inhumane capture of orcas and belugas in Russia. https://t.co/OED9zJ9fnz

— Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio) February 26, 2019

Activist Nina Zyryanova told AP last month: "There are very small chain-link pens, 12 to 15 baby whales are put there and have to be on top of each other.

"Although these animals are native to the Arctic, they must move hundreds of kilometers a day to stay warm."

An investigation by Russia's Border Guards Department last month found the animals were captured illegally and the facilities were too small for the mammals, AP reported. According to Russian law, it is only legal to capture whales for scientific or cultural purposes.

In an apparent response to the public outcry, Putin instructed officials to decide by 1 March whether to release the whales. On Monday, Dmitry Kobylkin, the head of the Ministry of Natural Resources, said it was beyond doubt that the animals should be freed, but plans would need to consider factors such as the potential health risks, a TASS report stated (via Lenta.Ru). The next steps must be taken by the Federal Agency for Fisheries and security forces, Kobylkin said.

According to Green Peace, officials have struggled to agree on how to deal with the whale jail. The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Federal Service supports releasing the animals, but the Federal Agency for Fishery was opposed to the idea prior to Kobylkin's announcement.

Peskov commented on Tuesday, according to TASS: "The issue cannot be considered closed, and we do not view it as closed.

"The Russian Presidential Administration's Control Directorate will deal with the issue and keep it under its special control."

The press secretary also highlighted consensus is split on what to do with the animals. "Some scientists and representatives of specialized agencies believe that they will be able [to survive] and that they need to be released before it gets warm," he said. "Others vehemently deny that, arguing that the animals will be doomed to death if released [from captivity]."

whale stock getty
Russian authorities have investigated a facility where over 100 whales are being held. Getty Images