April 8 (UPI) -- Illegally captured beluga and orca whales that were found recently in a "whale jail" on Russia's Pacific coast will be returned to the wild, a regional governor said on Monday.
So far, 87 belugas, 11 orcas and five walruses await rescue from a holding facility in the town of Nahkodka on Srendnyaya Bay, about 55 miles from Vladivostok. The animals remain in the ocean water but are restrained in narrow pens. The cause to free them has been promoted by environmental groups around the world, and by celebrities including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Pamela Anderson.
Their release was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, and Primorsky Region Gov. Oleg Kozhemyako said Monday, "An official decision has been taken to return all the animals into the wild."
Four companies face criminal charges over the confinement. The whales were supposedly captured for educational purposes, the only legal reason in Russia to hold them, but animal rights activists suspect the whales were to be sold to amusement parks and aquariums in China. Although the "whale jail" was discovered in 2018, Russian law does not explicitly prohibit the sale of the animals, and the case stalled for a while in court.
A rehabilitation sanctuary will be established to acclimatize the animals to their natural environment, Kozhemyako said, and the whales will be released in May. Some of the whales showed signs of hypothermia, skin lesions and injuries to flippers, officials said.
Oceanographer Jean-Michael Cousteau arrived in Vladivostok last week to inspect the whales and help prepare their release. The project to return them to the wild is expected to cost about $4.5 million.