I shouldn’t really care about this place. Not this much anyway. But I do. I care deeply, so much in fact that it makes my blood boil and my heart race whenever I am forced to read another attack story designed to discredit the organization I love, the place that I know is backed by people whose love and passion for our oceans and the life within are all but incomprehensible to those looking at the Vancouver Aquarium from the outside.
There is this massive tourist attraction, one of the must-dos for every visitor to the city with a huge economic impact on the entire region. There are colourful tropical fish, elusive octopuses and playful otters. And there are two whales, two dolphins and two harbour porpoises – all of them cetaceans.
And then of course there are a few dozen people who cannot come to terms with the fact that whales and dolphins (most of them omit the porpoises) live at the Aquarium. Of course, these people are impossible to educate. They are making up their own little world in which they anthropomorphize and apply their own ideas of a happy life to animals, standards by which of course a whale not living in the ocean cannot be happy. Science pointing to the opposite is, naturally, rejected.
An independent report commissioned by the Vancouver Park Board found that whales, porpoises and dolphins are extremely well cared for, with the Aquarium meeting and exceeding all animal care standards set by accrediting bodies. These animals exhibit no signs of stress, they are healthy – and they are fulfilling a purpose.
I could talk about education and how children light up when they get up close with a dolphin or a beluga whale, and how some of them end up becoming veterinarians, marine biologists or conservation scientists.
(Yes, there are some that believe that watching a DVD could have the same effect. I doubt it.)
And then there is the research aspect. Some of those scientists are almost as elusive as the octopus, yet they are doing some of the most incredible work, most of it away from the crowds, and paid for by visitors that come through admissions every day.
As a non-profit, the Aquarium’s mission is to conserve aquatic life; so many aspects of their work revolve around conservation. Some are looking into the diets of sea lions to find out why populations are declining, others study ocean pollution. And some are working with cetaceans.
Dr. Valeria Vergara is studying belugas to understand how man-made noise affects the belugas’ ability to communicate. Kathy Heise examines dolphin echolocation and how they avoid nets (nets kill 300,000 cetaceans every year).
But none of that matters to animal rights activists. They are stuck in their belief that whales and dolphins cannot possibly be happy in captivity, and measured by that standard even rescued animals are better off dead than in human care.
Now that every visitor has left and the lights go out, you can hear little else but the sound of the heavy rain pounding onto the deck, raindrops hitting the water. And suddenly there is this shrieky sound of a beluga whale vocalizing, and another one responding from the other end of the habitat. Qila and Aurora, the two resident beluga whales, are not sleeping. And they do not look unhappy to me either. They are ambassadors for their species, which, sadly, is not doing well in some parts of their range. And even the most pristine regions in the Arctic are under threat. Is it not vital to connect people to these beautiful animals, to make them understand what climate change, pollution and noise mean for an animal that lives in such a vulnerable ecosystem, where slight changes in water temperature can wreak havoc on the entire food web?
To me it is all worth it. I am a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium, where my role is to engage the public, to educate. I love talking about marine mammals, but I also aim to raise awareness for the threats they face in their natural habitats, almost all of them man-made. I get to tell the rescue stories of Jack and Daisy and how they helped to clear the way for a successful release of Levi back in 2013.
To me this is what the Aquarium is all about: education, conservation, rescue and rehabilitation. The money it earns goes back into its operation, that is the nature of a non-profit. The Aquarium does an awful lot of good, its animals are thriving. They have my support. And they deserve yours as well.
─ Friends of the Vancouver Aquarium