100 Beluga whales trapped in Russian Far East

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Over 100 Beluga whales are trapped in water between ice floes in the Chukotka region of Russia's Far East, the authorities said, calling on the government to send an ice-breaker to free them.

"A group of over 100 Beluga whales are cut off from the sea and are prisoners of ice floes in the Bering Sea," the Chukotka region said in a statement on its website, saying the local governor Roman Kopin had requested an ice-breaker.

It said that the whales were trapped just 15 kilometres (10 miles) south of the village of Yanrakynot on the Bering Sea.

The statement said the Kopin had written a letter to Transport Minister Igor Levitin and Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu "to study the possibility of sending an ice-breaker to save the whales."

It said that the whales risked becoming starved and the advance of the ice floes was reducing the space that they had to swim in.

"Given the lack of food and the speed at which the water is freezing, all the animals are threatened with exhaustion and death," it added.

The Chukotka government said that the Russian ice-breaking tug Rubin was just two days sail time away and could bring help to the whales.

The Beluga whale is a protected species in Russia and it is one of a handful of wild animals whose cause has been championed by Russian Prime Minister and nature lover Vladimir Putin.

The Beluga even has a special page on the prime minister's website (http://premier.gov.ru/patron/beluha/), an honour also accorded to the Amur tiger, polar bear and snow leopard.

In a widely-mediatised stunt in July 2009, Putin donned a wetsuit during a meeting with scientists on Russia's Pacific coast and clipped a radio transmitter onto a Beluga whale named Dasha.

The whales can measure up to six metres and weigh two tonnes. They can stay submerged for 25 minutes before coming to the surface to breathe.

In Russia, they live in the freezing Arctic waters of the north of the Russian Far East as well as in the White Sea and Barents Sea in the northwest of Russia.

The page devoted to the whales on Putin's website says that it is not clear how many Beluga whales live in the wild as scientific research into them only resumed in 2008.

Their habitats are threatened by the oil industry, global warming and hunting, according to ecologists.

Whales are often trapped in the Arctic ice but rarely in such numbers as in the incident off Chukotka.

Chukotka is Russia's most northeasterly region, its population blighted by problems of alcoholism and social deprivation but boosted by support from billionaire Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea football club owner, who previously served several years as its governor.

© 2011 AFP

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