Bowing to global criticism, Russia on Monday agreed to free nearly 100 whales held captive in the country's Far East.
Images of the whales - 10 orcas and 87 belugas - kept in cramped spaces in a bay near the Sea of Japan port city of Nakhodka surfaced last year.
The animals had been captured by a company that planned to sell them to China.
However, Russian officials intervened and asked French ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau for advice on how to safely release the illegally captured whales.
Cousteau, of the Ocean Futures Society, arrived Friday in Russia’s Far East on a mission to inspect the mammals and help create conditions for them to be released. Cousteau, son of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, has voiced concern about the animals’ condition and offered his help to the Russian government.
The whales’ condition has drawn international concern, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered authorities to investigate the case and release the animals. Russian prosecutors have brought criminal charges against four companies keeping the whales.
Whales are worth a fortune on the black market, and local environmental activists suspected that they were captured for sale to amusements parks in China.
Russian law only allows for the capture of whales for “scientific” purposes.
Regional Gov. Oleg Kozhemyako met with Cousteau in Vladivostok, voicing hope that his experience will help “get a full picture on how to allow the animals to readapt to living in the wild.”
Before flying to the Far East, Cousteau met with Russian Natural Resources Minister Dmitry Kobylkin in Moscow on Thursday.
Kobylkin said summer offers the most favorable conditions for releasing the animals. “We couldn’t release the animals in the winter, it would have simply killed them,” Kobylkin said. “We can and must do this work in the coming summer.”
He emphasized that Russia would like to rely on international expertise to ensure the safe release of the mammals.
“We want to do it as openly as possible,” Kobylkin added.
Russian scientists estimate that the rehabilitation effort will cost about $4.6 million.
Activists first raised the alarm late last fall when 101 belugas and orcas were captured and placed in a marine containment facility that environmentalists have dubbed a “whale prison” near Nakhodka.
Local prosecutors have said that several of the mammals have escaped, but environmentalists said four animals likely died because of cramped conditions and low temperatures.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.