June 12, 2024


In the heart of Seoul, amid the luxury shops at the foot of the world’s sixth-tallest skyscraper, a lone beluga whale named Bella swims aimlessly in a tiny, lifeless tank, where she has been trapped for a decade.

Her plight is urgent, with campaigners racing to rescue her from the bare tank in a glitzy shopping centre in South Korea’s capital before it is too late.

Referring to the Lotte Group, which owns the aquarium where she lives, Jo Yak-gol, of the marine environmentalist group Hot Pink Dolphins, said: “Almost five years have passed since they said they would release her.” An international petition has been launched to demand her release.

Bella’s story started in 2013, when she was captured in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Russia at the age of two. Along with two male belugas, Bello and Belli, she was sold to the aquarium, housed in a mega-mall beneath the 555-metre-high Lotte World Tower, which is owned by one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates.

Tragedy struck in 2016 when Bello died prematurely at the age of five (their average lifespan in the wild is 35 to 50 years), followed by the death of 12-year-old Belli in 2019.

A public outcry ensued that led to Lotte pledging to release Bella soon after the second death and again in 2021. But such efforts have repeatedly stalled, for reasons including the Covid pandemic.

When the Guardian visited the aquarium, Bella was seen switching between aimless spinning and floating motionlessly in her 1,224-tonne tank. The whales can grow to 5.5 metres (18ft) long but the tank is only 7 metres deep. “She lacks stimulation and is showing signs of a mental illness,” said Jo.

Jo Yak-gol, centre, co-founder of Hot Pink Dolphins, with other animal-rights protesters outside the Lotte tower, where the whale is kept in an aquarium amid shops. Photograph: Raphael Rashid

Dr Valeria Vergara, the co-director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s cetacean research programme, said belugas are highly intelligent and social. “They cooperate with each other to the point of helping raise each other’s young,” she said.

“They have long lives, and, of course, they have a very complex communication system,” said the marine biologist, who has studied beluga whales for more than two decades. “Keeping such beings in captivity is simply unethical.”

The aquarium industry is thriving, in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. Lotte’s aquarium in Seoul is one of the largest in the region, attracting millions of visitors since it opened in 2014.

Last December, South Korea banned buying whales and dolphins for display. However, the law does not apply retroactively, meaning that animals already in captivity, such as Bella, can be kept. Campaigners have been calling on Lotte to close the Seoul exhibit entirely.

Bella is one of five captive belugas in South Korea, alongside one at Aqua Planet Yeosu and three others at Geoje Sea World. Until recently, the latter offered packages where visitors could pay to ride on the whales; these have since been outlawed.

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Bella’s transfer to a seaside sanctuary is “the only ethical option”, according to Vergara. Having been removed from her natural habitat at such a young age, Bella could not survive in the open ocean. Belugas learn necessary skills such as hunting, migrating and communicating from their social groups.

“Captivity is cruel, and returning her to the wild is out of the question,” Vergara said.

In a statement, Lotte World Aquarium said it was working to protect animal rights and was “ready to send the beluga whale at any time”. It said it was having discussions with a committee composed of the oceans and fisheries ministry, animal rights groups and whale experts to carry out Bella’s release “based on a scientific and practical plan”.

It added that it was looking at a sanctuary in Iceland and planned sanctuaries in Norway and Canada as options.

Amid the bureaucratic tangle and different offers from sanctuaries, Bella remains in her tank. Lotte did not respond to a question about her wellbeing.

Outside Lotte World Tower, the Hot Pink Dolphins group are still protesting, demanding: “Free Bella now!”





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