Two beluga whales are back in the ocean for the first time after spending most of their lives so far in an aquarium.
Little Grey and Little White, both females, are the first residents of the “world’s first open water sanctuary for belugas,” according to Sea Life Trust, which operates the Beluga Whale Sanctuary in Iceland’s Klettsvik Bay. The United Kingdom-based Sea Life Trust is the “partner charity” of Sea Life Aquariums, a chain of aquariums and related attractions around the world.
The whales are getting acclimatized to the seawater and assessed by veterinarians in a small, sectioned-off “care pool” in the bay before they’re ready to be released into the larger sanctuary, the organization said in a news release earlier this week.
“It’s been quite the journey for these two,” Audrey Padgett, the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s general manager, told CNN. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been a labor of love.”
The two belugas, both about 12 years old, have distinctly different personalities. Little Grey is playful and mischievous, while Little White is more reserved and has close bonds with human caretakers, according to the BBC.
Both were captured from the wild when they were about a year old. They were kept at a Russian research facility before being sold in 2011 to Changfeng Ocean World, an aquarium in Shanghai.
In 2012, Merlin Entertainments ― the company that owns Sea Life Aquariums ― purchased Changfeng Ocean World. Merlin, which states it is opposed to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, pledged to move Little Grey, Little White and a third beluga at the aquarium, Jun Jun, to a more natural habitat.
But the undertaking, which involved creating an open-water sanctuary in Iceland and figuring out specialized transport for the large marine mammals, was “hugely complex,” a Merlin Entertainments spokesperson told HuffPost in an email.
Animal rights groups criticized the company for moving too slowly on the project and continuing to profit off the whales in the meantime. Jun Jun died in 2017, before she had the opportunity to be moved to the sanctuary.
“Whilst deeply saddened by Jun Jun’s death it made us even more determined to relocate Little Grey and Little White to their new open-water sanctuary home in Iceland,” the Merlin spokesperson said.
He also noted, “While we would have liked to have moved the whales sooner, it was vital we found the right location which met stringent criteria for Little Grey and Little White’s long term health and well-being.”
But in 2019, the sanctuary was finally ready and Little Grey and Little White embarked on the 6,000-mile journey from China to Iceland, involving stretchers, cranes, tugboats, trucks and even a specially adapted airplane. The move was initially planned for that April, but due to severe weather, was postponed until June of last year, the spokesperson said.
Before being moved into the bay, the whales would need to be quarantined in a pool where they could recuperate while being monitored by veterinarians and other experts. Because of the realities of Icelandic winter weather, the belugas’ move from the pool to the bay sanctuary needed to happen in the spring or summer. But the initial transportation delay meant Little Grey and Little White wouldn’t have enough time to acclimatize in the pool before summer’s end ― so the two whales had to wait until 2020.
On Friday, their long wait was finally over, and the two moved to their netted-off “care area” within the sanctuary.
“Following extensive planning and rehearsals, the first stage of their release back to the ocean was as smooth as we had hoped and planned for,” head of Sea Life Trust Andy Bool said in the charity’s statement. “We are carefully monitoring Little Grey and Little White with our expert care team and veterinarians and hope to announce their final release very soon.”
Once they’re deemed ready, Little Grey and Little White will have access to the full seawater sanctuary, which is 8 acres and separated from the rest the bay with netting that spans the depth of the water, according to LiveScience. Because of their long time in captivity, they aren’t good candidates for simply being released into the wild.
The arduous process of building the sanctuary and transferring Little Grey and Little White will hopefully pave the way for other whales, said Cathy Williamson of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a nonprofit that worked with Sea Life Trust to create the sanctuary, in a statement sent to HuffPost.
“Creating the world’s first whale sanctuary has taken considerable time and effort, but now we have done it we will be able to free whales much quicker in the future, as well as sharing our expertise with others,” she said.
A previous version of this article described Jun Jun as a dolphin. She was a beluga whale.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.