It is often said that it is hard to hide an orca. But (perhaps not surprisingly) the Russians seem to be doing a pretty good job. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence that that the big new Moscow Dolphinarium and Aquarium at the All-Russian Exhibition Center, currently being built, plans to put two orcas on display. In an interview, God Nisanov Year Nisanova, a billionaire and one of the financial backers, says that 17 dolphins have been purchased in Japan, that they will be displayed in multiple pools (a number of which will be used in therapy programs), and that the project has also caught beluga and killer whales for display (even if photos of the captured whales made him sad). And this air transport report indicates that two orcas (a 5-meter, 2700 kg female, believed to be the orca dubbed Narnia; and a 1700 kg male) were flown to Moscow in late November or early December (a 10-hour journey in crates).
Yet no one seems to know for sure where the two orcas are right now, creating a minor mystery. The location that appears to be the most likely temporary home for them (and presumably any other whales or dolphins the Moscow Dolphinarium flies in) is the two large tanks pictured above. The tanks have since been covered by an inflatable bubble. And according to this Russian blog, the facility, which measures about 37 x 68 meters, was put together last October, and was said to be a temporary shelter, and acclimatization stop, for animals being brought in for the dolphinarium. Here are some pictures the Russian blogger posted (and there are more here, plus a video):
As far as I can tell, no one has managed to get inside and confirm there are two orcas swimming around in these tanks. But if there are it is a crude and no doubt extremely discombobulating introduction to their life as show animals in captivity. Not that there is any nice way to make that transition.
So there are no killer whales in Sochi for the Olympics, just athletes and spectators.
But the run-up to the opening of the Winter Games featured an unexpected, and persistent, media story-line: wild-caught Russian killer whales would be joining the athletes at the Black Sea resort. Based mostly on rumors, mysterious and contradictory tweets, and unconfirmed reports, the basic narrative was that a Russian company called White Sphere had, over the past two years, captured 8 orcas from the Sea Of Okhotsk and two of them were headed to Sochi to wow the Olympic crowds and generate Olympic-size profits for the Sochi Dolphinarium.
The story mobilized animal rights activists, and reporters bombarded White Sphere and the Sochi Dolphinarium with questions about their killer whale doings. After trying to ignore media queries, the story got enough traction that White Sphere, a builder of aquariums (including aquariums for marine mammal display) issued an adamant denial on its Facebook page (it’s also here), saying “White Sphere officially declares that we have nothing to do with catching the killer whales or any other marine animals.” (Aquatoriya, the company which operates the Sochi Dolphinarium also took to Facebook to issue a heated and similarly self-righteous denial; also posted here). The impassioned and indignant White Sphere statement (you have to read the whole thing in Google Translate to get the full Boris Badenov flavor), acknowledged that White Sphere builds aquariums to display marine mammals, but added (I’ve had parts of the statement translated, for better accuracy; sorry Google Translate):
“If the amateur conservationists and sensation-hungry press thought twice and performed more rigorous investigation, they would have found neither documents supporting connections between “White Sphere” and captures of animals, nor holding facilities belonging to it. It’s unlikely that the company’s name would be mentioned by organizations allocating quotas for captures of marine animals. With no less surprise they would have found that inspections would discover no orcas in the Sochi dolphinarium (including those “captured by “White Sphere”).”
The statement, in similar high dudgeon, goes on to decry the slander and the damage done to White Sphere and its employees and partners. It bemoans the fact that the world media got White Sphere and its business so wrong. It encourages journalists to do proper reporting and investigation of the facts.
So I did. And here is what I found, with help on the ground in Moscow.
The idea that White Sphere has been connected to the capture of wild killer whales in Russia starts with the work of Erich Hoyt–co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) and a senior research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who tracks the Russian orca hunt very closely. Hoyt is careful, reliable, and has good sources and connections in Russia. And in an interview last November, he detailed the web of companies involved in the capture of the 8 killer whales taken from Russian waters (including a female called “Narnia”) over the past two years:
“For these 7 orcas this year  and the one last year , it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The [Sochi Dolphinarium] is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.”
So you have three Russian companies: White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya (Aquatoriya’s homepage lists the Sochi Dolphinarium among its facilities, and is named by the Sochi Dolphinarium as one of its partners, which, to complete the circle, also lists White Sphere on its homepage under a section titled “Our Friends). One company builds aquariums, one captures animals for aquariums, and one owns and manages aquariums. That’s a pretty complementary group, and Russian killer whale advocates have taken to calling all of them “White Sphere,” which perhaps helps explain how the world’s attention got focused on White Sphere, the aquarium construction company. But is it true that they have nothing to do with one another, that White Sphere (the construction company) is not connected to the capture and display side of the business? Um, not really.
Hoyt says that these new wild captures are being conducted by a conglomerate of companies called White Sphere, which captures marine mammals, and builds and operates aquariums in Russia. One aquarium, the Sochinskiy Delfinariy has been identified as the owner of Narnia. Hoyt believes that two of the recently caught orcas, a 4-year-old female and an 8-year-old male, are being offered for sale abroad, perhaps to a Chinese facility, and that at least two of the remaining group of five (one is a mature female; the sex and ages of the others are not known) will be shipped to Moscow soon to be placed in an Oceanarium that is being built at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Hoyt worries that the mature female might be the mother of the two young orcas being offered for sale abroad, which means that the family group would be broken up.
According to Hoyt, two CITES permits have already been issued, presumably to transport the two young orcas to China. You can read the whole thing here.