Georgia Aquarium experts help rescue 2 beluga whales from war-torn Ukraine

Oceanografic Valencia's marine mammal caretakers (right) and one of Georgia Aquarium's experts (left). (Photo courtesy of Georgia Aquarium)

This story was updated on Friday, June 21 at 10:29 a.m.

Marine mammal care specialists from the Georgia Aquarium were part of a team that rescued two beluga whales from Ukraine this week and safely delivered them to an aquarium in Spain.

It’s being called “likely the most complex marine mammal rescue ever undertaken.”

The multinational collaboration began on Monday and ended Tuesday with the arrival of 15-year-old male Plombir and 14-year-old female Miranda to Oceanografic Valencia. The aquarium is the largest in Europe and the only one on the continent with belugas in its facilities, according to a press release. 

“The complexities of this evacuation were immense, and we have been working for weeks to prepare for it,” said Dennis Christen, senior director of animal wellbeing and behavior at the Georgia Aquarium. “I’m humbled to have been trusted to provide the belugas care and protection during their long journey to their new home.”

The operation began with a team from NEMO Dolphinarium in Kharkiv, Ukraine, taking the belugas on a 12-hour drive to Odesa, a Ukrainian city 400 miles away. There they met the team of marine mammal care specialists from the Georgia Aquarium, Oceanografic and SeaWorld, who cared for the belugas on the long journey to Spain.

The route of the rescue operation. (Courtesy of Georgia Aquarium)

Dr. Daniel Garcia-Párraga, director of zoological operations at Oceanografic, said that if the belugas had stayed in Kharkiv, “their chances of survival would have been very slim.”

“I applaud AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] members Oceanografic, Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld, for convening the world’s most elite team of marine mammal experts to work with the Ukrainian aquarium on what is likely the most complex marine mammal rescue ever undertaken,” said Dan Ashe, President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  

A team of medical, nutritional and behavioral experts at Oceanografic are helping the belugas recover from the trauma they have experienced. Two Ukrainian caregivers are also helping with the transition for the next couple of weeks, according to the release.

“My heart is with the Ukrainian caregivers and the people of Kharkiv who had to say goodbye to Miranda and Plombir,” said the Georgia Aquarium’s Christen. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but it was best for them. I’m proud to have played a role in helping them.”