Beluga Whale

Cousteau's son urges Zeman to save whales

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2011, 12:00am


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The son of the late, world-renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau has called on Ocean Park to help release back into the wild the six beluga whales it considered importing to Hong Kong.

Jean-Michel Cousteau has written to Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman praising his decision last week not to import the near-threatened beluga whales from Russia for the park's new Polar Adventure attraction following an outcry from animal welfare groups.

Ocean Park held an option on the whales, captured in 2010 in Russia's Okhotsk Sea on its western coast, but decided not to go ahead with the importation despite funding a four-year sustainability survey. It concluded they could be removed from the wild without harming the population.

Ironically, the whales - which the park says are being held in a marine facility in western Russia - now face a potentially worse fate if they are instead sold to less well-regulated aquariums on the mainland or elsewhere.

In his letter, Cousteau, president of the California-based Ocean Futures Society, applauded the decision not to take the option on the six whales, but appealed to Zeman to take responsibility for their fate.

'There would be tremendous public support for you to release these whales, being held in pens, back into their natural habitat and to commit to a future of not capturing any more marine mammals from the wild for display or entertainment at Ocean Park,' he wrote. Cousteau's father died in 1997.

Samuel Hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, which led the campaign against the importation of the belugas, supported the appeal from Cousteau.

'If Ocean Park wants to show it really cares about conservation and research, what it could do is tag these whales when they are released and see whether they can be integrated back into the wild population,' Hung said.

'A lot of people have questions about releasing animals that have been confined ... If it was possible to tag these whales, it would be a valuable addition to our knowledge of how we can reintroduce animals to the wild. It would be a wonderful end to this story.'

Ocean Park executives are committed to setting up a beluga whale research centre regardless of the decision not to bring the animals to Hong Kong for the Polar Adventure attraction, due to open next year. A tank to accommodate the mammals is already under construction.

Asked about the appeal to return the belugas to the wild, Ocean Park spokeswoman Una Lau Yuk-min said the park was effectively powerless over the fate of the whales since it gave up the option to bring them to Hong Kong. However, she said: 'We have no rights, but we will do our best to influence the decision on where the whales go next.'

Sandy Macalister, executive director of the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he feared it might already be too late to reintroduce the belugas to the wild. 'The tragedy is that now they aren't going to come to Ocean Park; they may well end up somewhere far worse - an aquarium on the mainland or somewhere else in the world,' he said. 'But the bigger picture is that Ocean Park sets the standards, and if they had belugas, it would encourage more aquariums to have them.'