The Doc Hoping to Be the 'Blackfish' for Beluga Whales

Credit: Roast Beef Productions
'Born to be Free'

'Born to Be Free' highlights the plight of 18 belugas bound for U.S. aquariums, while also showcasing the brutal and often deadly methods of capturing and transporting the white marine mammals known as Arctic dolphins.

In terms of measuring a film’s impact, few made in recent years can top Blackfish.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about killer whales in captivity almost brought SeaWorld to its knees, with the resort's stock plummeting as sponsors pulled out and crowds and revenue dropped. Last year, it announced it was ending the controversial orca shows at its San Diego theme park, while in March it revealed it would end its killer whale breeding program altogether, a remarkable achievement for a low-budget 83-minute film.

While SeaWorld isn’t the primary target, The Hollywood Reporter has learned that reps for another major aquarium have been keeping a close eye on a new doc that hopes to do what Blackfish did for orcas for another aquatic mammal popular among oceanariums.

Described as “Arctic dolphins” or “sea canaries,” beluga whales are instantly striking creatures, almost ghostly white and with a distinctive swelling at the front of their heads. Most live around the Arctic Ocean and the seas and coasts of Russia and Greenland. But given their unique appearance, intelligence and chirpy, chatty, almost humanoid behavior, a growing number have found themselves living in captivity in aquariums around the world and performing for crowds. Estimates suggest there are just around 150,000 left living in the wild.

Born to Be Free, which had its world premiere at the recently concluded Sheffield Doc/Fest, focuses on the plight of 18 belugas. Captured off the coast of Russia, the 18 were originally intended for the U.S., with the vast Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta due to receive at least two (others were bound for Shedd in Chicago, SeaWorld and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut). But new legislation in the U.S. regarding the import of sea mammals saw the NOAA fisheries agency deny the aquarium’s request for a permit, leaving the animals in administrative limbo land.

In the doc, director Gayane Petrosyan, together with freedivers and filmmakers Tatyana Beley and Yulia Petrik (who just happens to be a former free dive champion), managed to locate these 18, who were living in cramped pools in a secretive enclosure by the Black Sea as they waited for the results of an appeal by Georgia Aquarium.

By the time the three found the belugas, some of whom have been in captivity for up to six years, one had already died, while others were showing signs of severely ill health.

But despite the aquarium reluctantly announcing in November 2015 that it wouldn’t appeal the decision, the future still isn't rosy for the animals.

“[The aquarium] is now looking for other buyers,” Petrosyan tells THR. “I would say there are no wishes to release them. It’s a question of money. They put in a lot of money and of course they now expect this back.”

Petrosyan claims Georgia Aquarium is hoping to sell the 18 (the dead beluga is believed to have been replaced) to other international facilities — ones outside the remit of the U.S.’s NOAA — having already had discussions with some in Japan.

And with legislation clamping down on marine mammal importation into America and — thanks to Blackfish — the tide slowly turning on U.S. public perception of captive animals in facilities such as SeaWorld, the focus is now on these international resorts.

Indeed, Born to Be Free highlights how numerous oceanariums have been springing up in Russia and, in particular, China, fueling a growing demand for captured dolphins, seals, orcas and belugas. The film claims that China is now the biggest importer of marine mammals from Russia, where research facilities turned to such trade after the fall of the Soviet Union saw their funding pulled.

Blackfish’s most seismic impact was in a country with an already strong animal rights scene, influencing opinions of killer whales in captivity to the point where enough people turned their backs on resorts with live shows that they were forced to react.

But in China and Russia, changing public perception is going to be a bigger struggle. “People really don’t understand and many, when we told them the information, said it was something new for them,” explains Petrosyan, adding that the reaction in Russia to any pressure from the West is likely to be the opposite to intended effect.

“When things come from the U.S., unfortunately in Russia it goes the other way,” she says, adding that NOAA had recently attempted to protect depleting reserves of belugas in Russian seas by saying they should be protected.

“How will [Russian] officials react? I’m sure they will say, ‘it’s our country, our animals, once again the U.S. wants to destroy our culture,' something like this.”

As highlighted in Born to Be Free, the main argument from Georgia Aquarium and other resorts for keeping belugas in captivity is that there is much about the creatures still unknown, and with declining numbers in the wild such research is therefore vital for understanding and helping them. But this is something the filmmakers — backed up with evidence from several scientists — reject.

“The techniques for studying animals in the wild have improved enormously,” adds producer Mike Lerner, Oscar-nominated for Hell and Back Again and The Square. “Maybe there was an argument in the 1950s that there were certain things you could learn if you had one and were to study it. But there are lots of programs now studying belugas in the wild.”

As the film highlights, not only are the facilities themselves detrimental to the welfare of the animals (it asserts 49 belugas have died prematurely in the U.S. since 1992, with five in Georgia Aquarium alone), but the methods of capturing the animals, alongside their transportation and holding, see a far higher percentage lost before they even make it there.

A shocking video from a former capturer showed the brutality of one such beluga bagging expedition. Vast nets are used to trap an entire herd of the animals, with the still grey, younger (and thus trainable) belugas separated from their mothers and dragged back to shore in small boats. Along the way, one dies after drowning in its net. Not to worry: The men simply go out to capture another one to ensure the order is met.

Born to Be Free estimates that as many as half the belugas captured in the Okhotsk Sea on Russia’s East coast, where many of the animals are found, died during the capturing process, the transportation or in the holding pens. In one of the most disturbing scenes, the filmmakers are shown the makeshift graves that are dug-in garbage dumps where the deceased belugas are unceremoniously buried.

While the filmmakers hope they can use Born to Be Free to galvanize international support and show the public the real story about the beluga whale not shown in aquariums, there is still hope for the 18 languishing in captivity by the Black Sea.

“We want to raise money to buy them,” says freediver Beley. “There is a lot of will to do that.”

Lerner estimates that the cost of each of the belugas has dropped from “about $100,000 to $20,000,” meaning a simple campaign could help free them.

“I would have thought that if you came up with a relatively small amount of money, they would take it, they just want rid of them. More than they’re value, it’s the cost of keeping them,” he says.

From there, a rehabilitation process would be needed; a piece of coastline where they could be introduced back into the wild after so long in holding pens. “We have huge support from experts, who are ready to help,” Petrosyan explains, adding that one of the chief marine mammal trainers featured in the doc is willing to lead the charge.

But there is significant downside from such a proactive approach to ensuring the belugas' release. “If we buy them, it gives [their capturers] money, so they will just go out and catch more,” Beley says. “We need to stop that cycle.”

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