This is the first footage showing a sinister ‘whale jail’ off the Russian Pacific coast which Greenpeace has described as “torture”.
Prosecutors are investigating how more than 100 sea mammals are crowded into cramped encloses ahead of feared illegal export to China.
Environmental activists say there are 11 orca and 90 beluga whales held in the compound near the port of Nakhodka in Russia’s Far East.
There is concern the orcas – which sell for £4.6 million or more – are destined for booming ocean theme parks in China.
Disturbing footage shows a helicopter view of the so-called ‘whale jail’ and its ten cramped tanks, with mammals in all but one of them.
“The scale of what is happening here is shocking,” said campaigning journalist Masha Netrebenko.
"From the air we saw that there are loads of white beluga whales in enclosures built in the water," he said.
“The helicopter couldn’t go very low – because when it was less than 100 metres above the ground, it was entirely losing control.
“Apparently these businessmen are so prepared that they even installed jammers.
“But the picture I have seen has deeply shaken me."
Separate footage shows a huge yellow crane lifting a whale into a tank on shore as one of the mammals is readied to be shipped off to an unknown destination.
Netrebenko claimed that nearby there is also a facility trading in seals.
The four companies reportedly involved in the ‘whale jail’ had permission to catch 13 orcas this year.
But prosecutors in Vladivostok believe this was based on catching the animals for conservation or educational purposes.
Checks are also underway on the legality of the tanks where the whales – many of them calves – are held.
Capturing such young whales is banned.
Investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta alleged this is the largest number of sea mammals ever to be held in such cramped enclosures.
China is reported to have some 60 marine theme parks with another 12 under construction.
Earlier this year, the Russian prosecutor general’s office called on the Interior Ministry to launch a fraud probe on the capture and sale to China of seven orca whales between 2012-15.
There are also claims of a scam by which whales are loaned rather than sold to evade tough environmental laws.
Greenpeace Russia described the conditions shown here as “torture”.
The campaigning organisation’s research coordinator Oganes Targulyan said: “Catching them at this tempo, we risk losing our entire orca population.”
He stressed that “the capture quota now is 13 animals a year, but no one is taking into account that at least one orca is killed for every one that is caught.”
There is high security around the “whale jail”.
Photographer Nina Zyryanova had her camera confiscated and s memory card stolen on Saturday as she investigated the site.
Netrebenko said: “I have seen orcas, white whales and whales in the ocean …many times ….and can be confident that only the ocean can be their home, not these tiny enclosures where intelligent creatures are stuffed like fish in a tin.
“I don’t know who you need to be to put them here and …. to allow trading them as soulless pieces of meat”.
She claimed the trade was for “big money” and is a "profitable business tied to people particularly close [to the Kremlin]”.
However, exact links to high places in Russia are unclear.
She said orcas are “the only living creatures apart from humans” with such strong family instincts.
“Orcas also feel very strongly about each other and can even die from sadness if something happens to a member of their family.”
Keeping them in oceanariums is cruel, she added.
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