CityMash.com - The Vancouver Aquarium has been a mainstay of our city since it opened in 1956. If you grew up in Vancouver you probably went to the Aquarium on school trips, to birthday parties, and on family days out. Tourist guides and sites extol the virtues of the Aquarium and list it as a ‘must visit’ attraction, especially for families.
Nowadays, the citizens of our city are almost required to pitch their tent in either the pro-aquarium camp or the anti-aquarium camp. Supporters of both points of view cite studies and statistics proving they are right and demand those with the opposing opinion concede their position but things are rarely that black and white. A brief look at the complex history of the Aquarium will demonstrate that.
The inception of whales in captivity
In 1964 the Aquarium commissioned Samuel Burich to hunt down and kill a’ killer whale’ so he could build an accurate, anatomically correct, life-size model for the “British Columbia Hall”. At the time, little, if anything was known about these creatures, other than stories from whale hunters who warned the world at large about thousands of these aggressive creatures roaming the seas just waiting to attack and kill anything not fast enough to get out of their way.
The harpooned whale did not die and was towed, by the harpoon rope with which it was captured still anchored at its dorsal fin, from near East Point, Saturna Island, to a temporary pen at Burrard Drydock. Visitors in their thousands flocked to the Burrard Drydocks to see the ‘killer creature of the deep’ and everyone was surprised at how docile it was and this was, basically the beginning of the captive whale industry.
The Aquarium staff at the time knew nothing about Orcas and tried to feed it warm blooded food such as seal meat, whale blubber and horse hearts. For 55 days the whale did not eat and was only saved from starving to death after it was offered fish and responded straight away. Unfortunately ‘Moby Doll’, who was only discovered to be a male after his death, died a month later in a new pen in Jericho Beach.
By today’s standards, the whole episode is inhumane and barbaric, but you cannot judge something that happened over 50 years ago by today’s standards. What we can do is recognise organisations like the Aquarium have the ability to learn and to change, not only their internal knowledge and practices but the perceptions of the general public.
As we wait to hear from the international panel of experts who are trying to figure out what killed Qila and Aurora in November, we could look at this as a turning point for whales in captivity. It is an opportunity for the Vancouver Aquarium to make a seismic change as radical as the one that took place in 1964.
What could the future bring?
Instead of building a new Arctic exhibit and bring back some of the belugas on loan to other facilities, the Aquarium could declare they will no longer keep and live cetaceans. Instead, they could work with some of Vancouver’s exceptional tech professionals and develop the world’s first virtual reality aquarium experience.
Imagine, sitting in your seat which would move in time with the waves, and swimming through the ocean alongside British Columbia’s native pods of orcas. You could watch as all kinds of cetaceans swam, ate, socialised, and gave birth. Virtual reality could immerse you into the world of these beautiful, social creatures.
Aquarium staff could talk about the animals as a life-size virtual reality version rises from the water and is used to illustrate their talk. Virtual reality could be used to powerfully demonstrate the impacts of pollution and climate change on the ecosystems by dropping us into a world where we have already passed the point of no return.
Restructure the aquarium
At the moment the Vancouver Aquarium is a charitable organisation which runs a tourist attraction that must stay profitable, carries out scientific research, and helps to rescue and rehabilitate animals. This mixture lays the aquarium open to accusations of conflicts of interest. People find it difficult to believe you can put the animals best interests over the needs of a tourist attraction to make a profit so why not split them?
The rescue and research functions could be split off and registered as two separate charities, and the aquarium could run as an independent tourist attraction and educational facility, donating a percentage of profits to research and rescue. An independent board of volunteers with a variety of perspectives could oversee the relationship between the three.
What about rescued animals?
The Vancouver Park Board put a municipal bylaw in place, in 1996, that prohibits the Vancouver Aquarium from capturing wild cetaceans for display. Also, they can only barter with other facilities for cetaceans born in captivity, captured before 1996 or rescued and not suitable for releasable after this date.
Instead of displaying rescued animals, the aquarium could partner with conservation organisations to build large rescue enclosures, away from the public eye, where the animals that cannot be rehabilitated and set free, can live out their days in relative peace. This would have the additional benefit of removing any ambiguity about animals being rescued and kept to boost visitor numbers.
Would scientific research suffer?
Using scientific research as a justification for holding intelligent animals captive to generate revenues is not just wrong it is unethical. Animal research should take place in the wild where the behaviours observed are not potentially changed by the animal being kept in captivity. Limited research could take place at the rescue and rehabilitation facility which would help fund operating costs.
This is only one thought about where the aquarium could go in the future; there are many more perspectives, and we would like to hear yours. What would you like to happen to the aquarium in the next decade?
The Aquariums media office was contacted during the research and writing of this article but failed to respond to questions.