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Two passengers of enormous size were transported to safety by truck from Ukraine

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This was a huge evacuation. In fact, it was two huge evacuations.

In what experts called one of the most complex marine mammal rescues ever, the beluga whales were rescued from an aquarium in the hard-hit eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Wednesday morning and transported to Europe’s largest aquarium in Valencia, Spain.

Marine mammal experts say the evacuation of 15-year-old male seal Plumpir and 14-year-old female seal Miranda could not have come at a better time as Russian airstrikes intensify on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

“If they had remained in Kharkiv, their chances of survival would have been very slim,” said Daniel Garcia-Párraga, head of animal operations at the Valencia Marine Science Museum, who helped lead the rescue effort.

Belugas’ natural habitat is the Arctic, and they need cold water to survive. Damage to Kharkiv’s power grid meant the aquarium there had to rely on generators, making it challenging to keep the water warm.

Meanwhile, Dr. Garcia-Parraga said, the whales’ diet was recently halved because of a lack of the 132 pounds of squid, herring, mackerel and other fresh fish they need each day. Ukrainian caregivers are even considering using fish discarded by restaurants and markets.

In recent weeks, bombs have exploded close enough to send ripples through the waters around the NEMO Dolphinarium. As the situation became increasingly dangerous, the Ukrainians decided to evacuate the whales.

Moving marine mammals is a dangerous business at the best of times. Transporting sick or stressed animals is even more difficult.

“You want to make sure everyone that’s being transported is as healthy as possible,” said veterinarian Michael Walsh, director of the University of Florida’s marine animal rescue program, who was not involved in the operation.

In an emergency, he said, “you may not have as many options.”

Dan Ashe, president of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the rescue operation “required the world’s most elite team of marine mammal experts” to be completed. He called the rescue “probably the most complex marine mammal rescue operation in history.”

Experts from the Valencia Oceanarium, Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld assisted the Ukrainian crews in the rescue operation, which began Monday evening and lasted 36 hours and more than 1,900 miles before dawn Wednesday.

Kharkiv may seem an unlikely place for belugas to be found. But there are more than 3,500 cetaceans (a group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) in captivity around the world, said Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean intelligence and captive animal welfare. “I would not be surprised to find captive cetaceans anywhere,” she said in an email.

Dr. Marino is also Whale Sanctuary Projectand said cetaceans should not be kept in captivity.

“But if it does, we have a moral responsibility to protect them from harm,” she said.

NEMO Dolphinariums, which operate across Ukraine, have repeatedly faced allegations of animal cruelty. Animal rights group UAnimals, which has evacuated thousands of animals since the Russian invasion, released a statement saying that the DOLLIFESTYLE is a “very serious crime” and “a serious crime”. A scathing report This year at the Dolphinarium.

Olga Chevganiuk, head of the organization’s international department, said Ukraine “must immediately ban dolphinariums.”

Natalia Gorzak, International Fund for Animal Welfare’s wildlife rescue field officer in Ukraine, said that while the rescue was welcome, the whales should not have been in Kharkiv in the first place, noting that there were signs that NEMO had illegally taken some of the animals from the wild.

“They’re capturing marine mammals and then exploiting them — training them and using them for entertainment,” she said. “That’s absolutely not OK.”

Operators of the NEMO facility have denied allegations of cruelty.

While some seals, dolphins and sea lions have been evacuated from the facility, the Kharkiv Dolphinarium remains open, hosting dolphin shows despite air raid sirens there that can last more than 16 hours a day.

But as bombing of the city intensified, the challenge of caring for the belugas became increasingly daunting.

Dennis Christen, senior director of animal welfare and behavior at the Georgia Aquarium, who met the whales after they crossed into Moldova from Ukraine, said in an interview that “the complexity of this evacuation is enormous” and that rescuers had been preparing for weeks.

Mr. Christensen and Dr. Garcia-Parraga both said that if One of the world’s leading experts on beluga whales did not live in Kharkiv.

That expert, Olga Shpak, abandoned her research on the day of the Russian invasion and went to Kharkov to assist in the war effort. Aid to Ukraine, A charity that aids soldiers and civilians on the front line.

Speaking by phone while driving through eastern Ukraine, Ms Shpak said she was aware of the plight of the Kharkiv whales when the war broke out, but that evacuation became unfeasible as Russian troops closed in on the city.

After the Russians were driven out of the area in the fall of 2022 and the situation stabilized, concerns about the animals receded.

As the situation worsened in recent months and evacuation plans were drawn up, Dr. García-Parraga reached out to Ms. Shpak. The two had first met at the 2007 White Whale conference in Valencia but had lost touch after the invasion. After reconnecting, Ms. Shpak became the main liaison between Ukrainians and international experts.

Mr. Christen said they peppered her with thousands of questions day and night, and she answered them all.

The problem started with the Ukrainian shipping crates. The crates were not designed for beluga whales and were too small. Rather than risk breaking the crates, the Ukrainians decided that they would drain the water out every time they lifted the crates containing the whales.

“The Ukrainian team did an excellent job transporting the animals from Kharkiv to Odessa,” Dr. Garcia-Parraga said.

A member of the Oceanography and Marine Sciences Department met the truck that delivered the crates in Odessa, where it was rigorously inspected.

Once the trucks crossed the Moldovan border, there was no going back. So if there were any issues with the crates or the whales’ health, they needed to be discovered in Odessa. The team gave the green light, and the whales were back on the road.

In Moldova, Dr. Garcia-Parraga and Mr. Christen traveled by truck to the airport. Because Moldovan airports lack the heavy cranes needed to move the whales, rescuers rented a specialized cargo plane equipped with an internal crane.

The paperwork was cumbersome, and the Italian prime minister was in transit at the same time, adding precious time to the trip. As the hours passed, the team needed to constantly monitor the whales and keep the water in the tanks between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius.

They eventually reached Valencia before dawn and arrived at their new home at 6:30am.

“We are very focused on the animals,” Dr. Garcia-Parraga said. But he was equally moved by the care he showed the Ukrainians who helped evacuate.

Even though they themselves were dealing with the trauma of losing friends and loved ones, they still showed deep compassion for animals, he said.

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