Assist Ukraine Director, Olga Shpak, Plays Critical Role in Dramatic Beluga Whale Rescue

In a remarkable feat of coordination and expertise, Dr. Olga Shpak, one of the world’s leading beluga whale experts, played a critical role in the rescue of two beluga whales from an aquarium in the war-ravaged city of Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. The whales were safely transported to their new home at Europe’s largest aquarium in Valencia, Spain. This complex rescue operation has been hailed by experts as one of the most intricate marine mammal rescues ever attempted.

The Challenge

The backdrop of this daring rescue was the city of Kharkiv, heavily battered by ongoing conflict. The extraction of the belugas required not only meticulous planning but also exceptional expertise. The success of this mission hinged on the involvement of Dr. Olga Shpak, whose unparalleled knowledge and dedication made this extraordinary rescue possible.

The Unsung Hero

Dr. Shpak, an esteemed marine biologist, has dedicated her life to the study and preservation of beluga whales. However, her life took a dramatic turn when Russia invaded Ukraine. Leaving behind her research, she moved to Kharkiv and devoted herself to humanitarian efforts, collaborating with Assist Ukraine, a charity focused on aiding soldiers and civilians at the frontline.

Despite the chaos and danger surrounding her, Dr. Shpak’s unwavering commitment to the whales never faltered. Her intimate knowledge of the belugas’ needs and behavior was crucial to the success of this rescue mission. Without her presence and expertise in Kharkiv, such an endeavor would have been deemed impossible.

The Rescue Operation

The rescue began early on Wednesday morning, involving a team of dedicated professionals and volunteers who navigated the perilous environment of Kharkiv. The logistics of transporting two large marine mammals over such a long distance, particularly from a conflict zone, required extraordinary measures. The team worked tirelessly to ensure the safety and well-being of the belugas throughout their journey.

After an arduous trek, the belugas finally arrived at their new home in Valencia. The transition to Europe’s largest aquarium marks the beginning of a new chapter for these magnificent creatures, who will now be able to live in a safe and nurturing environment, far removed from the dangers of war.

Read The New York Times article here


Have Gear, Will Deliver: Why I Carry Supplies to Ukrainian Troops (excerpts)
By Anna Husarska, a journalist and political analyst

Kharkiv (Ukraine) This past summer, Britain’s defense minister at the time, Ben Wallace, chided Ukraine for not showing enough gratitude for the West’s weapons supplies. “We’re not Amazon,” he said.

No, but there is a kind of Amazon for the Ukrainian military, in analog form: a network of civilian volunteer groups that deliver an array of goods to soldiers in the field, on request.

I know because I’m one of those volunteers. We deliver tourniquets, chest seals for lung wounds, observation drones, night vision monoculars, power banks, underwear and feet warmers, all within a few days. A secondhand four-wheel-drive vehicle or a thermal drone takes a little longer, up to two weeks.

Volunteerism has played a powerful role in Ukraine’s recent history. An opinion poll conducted that summer, when the economy was already suffering from Russian attacks, found 86 percent of Ukrainians had donated to charities and 33 percent were actively volunteering.

Supplying the army quickly, often with imported items, could not easily be done otherwise: The military’s lingering post-Soviet bureaucracy makes reacting to its own soldiers’ needs difficult. Soldiers get kitted out with gear when they sign up, but lost or damaged items, from socks to helmets, are not automatically replaced. The Defense Ministry is busy dealing with big-ticket items, distributing tanks and heavy weapons coming in from all over the world.

That’s how we, the volunteers, ended up fund-raising and supplying so many essential bits and pieces through ad hoc arrangements with parts of the Ukrainian military. In the grand scheme of things, our individual efforts are minuscule, but they are lifesaving all the same [. . .]

My most recent delivery was to the 3017th Military Unit of the Ukrainian National Guard [. . .] I pick up the vehicle in Berlin. On the Polish side of the Rava Ruska border crossing into Ukraine, I am waved through. On the Ukrainian side, the customs officers know me from previous deliveries, so things go smoothly there, too. An hour later in Lviv I meet up with Olga Shpak, a biologist specializing in whales who abandoned her research, friends and apartment in Moscow two days before the invasion to return to her native Kharkiv. She now is a representative there for another volunteer group, Assist Ukraine, co-founded by the retired NPR journalist Anne Garrels.

Small and flexible groups like these are crucial in this war because the big international humanitarian organizations shy away from anything remotely military. Even a lifesaving tourniquet smells martial to them. But, as Ms. Garrels said soon after the invasion, Ukrainians “don’t need teddy bears, they need flak jackets.”

Ms. Shpak is a one-stop supplier for the military units she knows. Their needs range from dry showers and insect repellent to night-vision devices. She finds the product on the market — in Ukraine or abroad, via the producer or online — and buys it with funds from Assist Ukraine or similar groups, and then organizes the delivery. “Can you urgently find a sturdy pickup for the 3017th?” she had texted me. Soon, it was in the unit’s shopping cart [. . .]

I for one have never seen a war effort — and I have reported on several dozen conflicts — relying so much on volunteerism.

POLITICO MAGAZINE: Ukraine Needs More Than Just Weapons to Win. That’s Where I Come In.

I drive donated equipment to Ukraine’s frontlines. Here’s a photo diary of my deliveries.

When Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, I was a long way away, scuba diving in Madagascar. Having decided to stop reporting on conflicts, I was writing a book on Cuba. But when the war broke out next door to my native Poland, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the monstrosity and couldn’t stay away.Click here to read more.

MOTHER JONES: She Was on the Front Lines of Whale Conservation. Now She’s on the Front Lines of War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended Olga Shpak’s life—and a generation of science.

ALASKAN PUBLIC MEDIA | PBS NPR | With Alaskans’ help, Ukrainian woman gets much-needed supplies to her war-torn country

With Alaskans’ help, Ukrainian woman gets much-needed supplies to her war-torn country