What You Need to Know about Bella, the Beluga Whale Being Held Captive in a Seoul Mall

Both Bella's tankmates have died, leaving the whale to float alone in her tiny space.

Lauren Wellbank - Author

May 21 2024, Published 12:42 p.m. ET

Bella the Beluga Whale
Source: animalactivistjodie/TikTok, gyoposis_rachel/TikTok, m.miumiu/TikTok

A South Korean shopping center is currently home to a beluga whale named Bella, who has swam in the shallow waters of the mega mall for nearly a decade. Bella was once one of three whales who spent their days in a 1,224 ton-tank, but since her two "brothers" died unexpectedly, Bella serves as Lotte World Aquarium's lone beluga, something activists hope to change by helping to relocate the whale to a sanctuary, which they say can better serve her needs.

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Unfortunately for Bella and those who want to see her freed, her release has been a long and slow moving one, something that experts worry could be doing untold damage to the whale. Continue reading to learn Bella's story, including why activist are concerned about her wellbeing.

Bella the Beluga Whale
Source: animalactivistjodie/TikTok
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Activists are desperate to free a beluga whale kept in captivity at a Seoul mall.

Members of the marine environmentalist group Hot Pink Dolphins are renewing their calls for Bella to be released after continued promises from Lotte World Aquarium appear to have gone unfulfilled. In a conversation with The Guardian, one group member shared their frustration over the inaction from Lotte Group after the company promised to rehome Bella almost five years ago.

The decision to release Bella came after the death of her tankmates, Bello and Belli. Both died tragically early, with Bello passing at just five in 2016 and Belli dying at the age of 12 in 2019. Their deaths were especially destressing, since belugas traditionally live between 35 and 50 years in the wild.

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Bella has been a captive since she was two years old when she was captured near the coast of Russia. She has been on display as part of an arctic attraction ever since then, where she has resided with other captive animals like seals and penguins. Now, Bella spends her days alone, aimlessly swimming or floating around her tank, a sign that the Hot Pink Dolphins rep says indicates that Bella is suffering from extreme mental duress.

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Belugas are notoriously intelligent and social creatures, and that's something Redditors who have seen Bella in person commented on in a thread about her promised release. One even noted how Bella seemed to stay away from many adults who come to see her each year, only taking interest in the children who line up at the glass to catch a glimpse of the grieving beluga.

"She wants nothing to do with adults, but seemingly loves kids," user KatLeoy wrote. "It was so sad to see, because there was such an intensely sad feeling about the tank in general, and Bella was clearly very bored, but it seemed like the kids were like a little ray of hope for her to watch." Others shared similar experiences, saying that their overall impression of Bella was one of deep sadness.

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Where can you see beluga whales in the wild?

Unfortunately for whales and the people who love them, captivity just isn't the best place for them to be. Even groups with the best intentions will struggle to have enough space and stimulation to mimic a whale's natural environment, which is why it's best to try and do your whale watching from a distance. That may mean visiting a seaside sanctuary, like the one activists hope Bella will eventually be moved to.

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If you'd like to make a trip to go see some belugas in their traditional habitat, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says you can visit some of the cooler waters in Greenland, North America, Asia, and Europe. For those Americans looking to travel without a passport, Anchorage, Alaska may be your best bet. Not only can you see these beautiful creatures from the shore, but you might get to see a whole lot of them if you visit during their fall migration.

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Are beluga whales endangered?

While the beluga whale isn't on the endangered species list, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) notes that they aren't without concern. According to them, the beluga is especially susceptible to the negative consequences that come along with human developments along the coast, which include exposure to pollutants.

While Bella can never be returned to the wild since she was captured so young, she should surely be given an opportunity to be freed from the aquarium and given a chance to once again swim free. Hopefully the Lotte Group is making progress on her release.

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