News / Vancouver

In-depth investigation into beluga deaths underway says Vancouver Aquarium

A toxin or virus is the most likely culprit in the deaths of Aurora and Qila

This photo of Aurora in Vancouver Aquarium was taken January 24, 2012.

Meighan Makarchuk/Contributed

This photo of Aurora in Vancouver Aquarium was taken January 24, 2012.

The Vancouver Aquarium believes a toxin or virus is the most likely culprit in the puzzling deaths of two beluga whales but is not ruling anything out, including intentional poisoning.

Aurora, a 29-year old beluga whale, died Friday, only 10 days after her daughter, Qila, 21, passed away with similar symptoms.

“With those whales exhibiting the same clinical signs, exhibiting the same laboratory results, we have to assume that the deaths are related,” said the aquarium’s head veterinarian, Dr. Martin Haulena.

Saturday’s necropsy on Aurora’s body revealed the whale had a “dramatically compromised” liver but did not yield any clear answers on what caused it, he told reporters.

“I will not rest until we find some answers. That’s a promise. And neither will anyone else around here. We loved those whales and we tried incredibly hard. I am very proud of our team.”

The medical team is considering a number of reasons, including “everything from bio toxins to organic or in organic toxins, right up to possibly introduced toxins,” said Haulena.

Aurora the beluga whale interacts with a Vancouver Aquarium caretaker Dec. 20, 2014.

Neil Fisher/Contributed

Aurora the beluga whale interacts with a Vancouver Aquarium caretaker Dec. 20, 2014.

Vancouver Aquarium CEO Dr. John Nightingale confirmed he is in contact with police about the possibility that the whales’ deaths were the result of a criminal act.

“We’ve had the break in at marine mammal rescue, we’ve had social media trolls harassing and systematically and in a programmed way harassing some of our staff,” he said.

“Then of course, the two so far unexplained deaths.”

The non-profit’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, was broken into the same week as Qila’s death.

Staff are reviewing security footage of the pool minute by minute and conducting a complete review of the belugas’ food.

The aquarium has also hired a panel of medical professionals, both from the veterinary and human side, to investigate the cause of death, according to Nightingale.

Until cause of death is determined, no marine mammals, including the five belugas on loan to other aquariums, will move into the tank where Aurora and Qila used to live, he confirmed.

But design work for an expansion of the tank, located in the aquarium’s arctic exhibit, will continue, he said. 

There are currently three cetaceans left in the aquarium’s care, including a false killer whale, a harbour porpoise, and a white-sided dolphin.

Petty Officer First Class Rob Majore, centre, a clearance diver with the Esquimalt-based Royal Canadian Navy Fleet Diving Unit, and Vancouver Aquarium senior marine mammal trainer Paula Lash, right, participate in a diving demonstration as beluga whales Aurora, left, and her daughter Qila, swim at the aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday January 18, 2015.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Petty Officer First Class Rob Majore, centre, a clearance diver with the Esquimalt-based Royal Canadian Navy Fleet Diving Unit, and Vancouver Aquarium senior marine mammal trainer Paula Lash, right, participate in a diving demonstration as beluga whales Aurora, left, and her daughter Qila, swim at the aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday January 18, 2015.

But critics like the Vancouver Humane Society say the passing of the two belugas show it is time for the aquarium to stop keeping cetaceans in captivity.

Nightingale had some pointed words for them.

“Almost everything that is known about beluga hearing was learned in this aquarium with those whales in that exhibit,” he said.

“Advanced life saving skills that come from taking care of these animals is what led us to run our marine mammal rescue program, the only one in Canada.”

Vancouver Park Board chair Sarah Kirby-Yung has said she wants to see a plebiscite on the issue – one that was initially sparked by the 2013 documentary about orca captivity, Blackfish.

The average lifespan of a beluga is 15 years, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

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