Aurora arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1990, and her daughter Qila was born there in 1995. Together, these two beluga whales have inspired millions and millions of people, most of which had never seen a beluga whale before. Many have grown up with the beluga whales at the Aquarium, and to the animal care and veterinary staff, Qila and Aurora were family. Their deaths have devastated members, staff and volunteers. It’s for the first time in 49 years that there are no belugas at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Not surprisingly, animal rights activists opposing animals in captivity have seized this opportunity to advance their cause. They have renewed their calls for the Aquarium to abandon its whale and dolphin exhibits. As the press often focuses on the voices of the animal rights activists, as a group supporting the Aquarium, we would like to share a Q & A on the questions most often raised by Aquarium opponents:
How old were Aurora and Qila, and did they die younger than their wild counterparts?
Qila was 21 years old and Aurora was about 30 years old. Between beluga populations, there are differences in diet, lifestyle etc. — and that also affects the average lifespan. Aurora originated from the Western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, based on the COSEWIC report for that species, this population has an average lifespan of 15 years. Some individuals live longer, others die younger.
Activists like to quote different lifespans. They usually refer to the maximum lifespan for the global population and do not take into account individual populations. When they provide averages, activists often quote from statistics that do not account for newborn (neonatal) mortality, dramatically raising the average reported. For comparison, the maximum reported lifespan for humans is 122.
Do the whales really swim in dirty water?
Animal rights activists love to say that the whales are “swimming in their own faeces”, calling the water dirty and pointing to algae visible in the habitat. They also like to allege that it contains high levels of chlorine. There is very little truth to either of theses claims. The water is being pumped into the marine mammal habitats from Burrard Inlet, filtered and fully replaced multiple times per day. The amount of chlorine in that water is lower than what’s in your drinking water. Chlorine is mainly used to disinfect an empty, drained tank after cleaning it.
Do beluga whales really travel ‘hundreds of miles’ per day?
Beluga whales may be able to travel long distances, but they do not do so “for fun”. Like all marine mammals, beluga whales travel where that is necessary for their survival, to follow prey movements, or to find a mate or give birth. Marine mammals do not expend energy for travel unless there is a significant advantage to it. The same applies for diving to great depths.
There are no specific studies of the average distance travelled by beluga whales in the Western Hudson Bay where Aurora originated from. However, a study of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska, found that the animals observed only travelled 11 to 30 km per day. Another study examined beluga whales in the Canadian High Arctic, finding that they travelled between 26 and 38 km per day. There are likely groups that travel more, and some that travel even less, depending on prey availability and likely many other factors.
Does the Vancouver Aquarium capture whales or dolphins from the wild?
It is no secret that the Vancouver Aquarium did once capture whales and dolphins from the wild. Beluga whale Aurora was one of the last, captured in 1990. Shortly after, in 1996, the Vancouver Aquarium made a commitment and declared publicly that they would no longer capture whales or dolphins from the wild. They have stuck to that promise ever since. Other aquariums in North America have followed their lead, and whales and dolphins are not longer captured for aquariums in North America.
Today, every whale, porpoise or dolphin at the Vancouver Aquarium is an animal that has been rescued and rehabilitated but deemed non-releasable by a government agency.
How did the rescued animals come to the Vancouver Aquarium?
For any marine mammal in need of rescue, the Aquarium first needs permission from a government authority remove it from its natural habitat for rehabilitation. That is especially true for whales and dolphins. Only when no alternative can be found that promises success is that permission granted by a government officer, usually following examination and consultation with other experts. In Canada, the agency in charge of rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals is Fisheries and Oceans Canada (NOAA and NMFS are their counterparts in the US).
Wild animals must be returned to the wild, and that always happens, whenever there is a realistic chance an animal can make it on its own. Fisheries and Oceans monitors the rehabilitation process and makes a final decision. Experts are consulted to give an opinion on the likelihood that a release could be successful, and the entire medical history is considered. Whenever an animal is deemed non-releasable, i.e. the assessment is that the animal would not survive in the wild, Fisheries and Oceans Canada also decides where the animal should be moved to.
All rescued animals at the Vancouver Aquarium were deemed non-releasable by a government authority.
What factors decide whether a rescued animal can be released or not?
A rescued animal that has undergone successful rehabilitation must be able to survive on its own. That means that it must be healthy, show normal behaviours, be able to feed itself and avoid predators. It must also not be habituated to humans to make a successful release possible.
In the case of Chester, Fisheries and Oceans decided to publish a press release due to the significant public interest, outlining the reason for his being deemed non-releasable.
Does the Vancouver Aquarium operate for profit?
The Vancouver Aquarium is a registered charity in Canada. As such, they must not operate for profit – and they don’t. They have up to 1,000 volunteers (more than paid staff) and spent 57% of their budget on charitable programs in 2015.
There are ridiculous rumours that the Aquarium operates for-profit corporations. Those claims have been debunked as lies. None of these corporations exists.