News / Vancouver

Vancouver Aquarium will no longer keep whales and dolphins in captivity

Staff are assessing whether Helen, the last remaining cetacean, will stay at the aquarium or move to another facility.

Senior marine mammal trainer Lenora Marquez works with Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, on Jan. 17, 2018. Helen is the last remaining cetacean at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Senior marine mammal trainer Lenora Marquez works with Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, on Jan. 17, 2018. Helen is the last remaining cetacean at the Vancouver Aquarium.

For years, the Vancouver Aquarium has battled for the hearts of visitors and politicians in the debate over whether or not to keep whales and dolphins in captivity. But on Thursday morning, the non-profit conceded.

The aquarium will no longer be a home for rescued and rehabilitated cetaceans, it announced.

The decision comes almost a year after the Vancouver Park Board voted to ban bringing new cetaceans into captivity, a decision some residents and Aquarium authorities have loudly opposed.

“We came to the decision because this aquarium has always been about engaging people, lighting that little flickering flame of curiosity about the ocean,” the aquarium’s CEO and President John Nightingale said in an interview with Metro on Wednesday.

“The distraction around the whole debate of keeping whales and dolphins, makes pursuing that mission impossible on some fronts and very difficult on others.”

Staff are assessing whether Helen, the aquarium’s pacific white-sided dolphin and last remaining cetacean, should go to a new facility or remain in Vancouver.

In May, the park board passed a bylaw that banned the Vancouver Aquarium from bringing in any new cetaceans into its Stanley Park facility, effective immediately.

But the aquarium continues to fight the ban in court and has no plans to withdraw its legal challenge, according to Nightingale.

He says the non-profit plans to use its Stanley Park facility to temporarily house cetaceans that are too injured to go back to the wild, before sending them to another facility that would be their permanent home.

The park board’s cetacean ban does not allow for that.

But no matter what the judge rules, the aquarium is facing an uncertain future. It has spent over 50 years of its 62-year history displaying whales and dolphins, in addition to other marine life. In the 90s, it committed to not displaying orcas and now, it has decided to not display cetaceans altogether.

Helen the pacific white-sided dolphin interacts with long time Vancouver Aquarium trainer Lenora Marquez.

Jennifer Gauthier

Helen the pacific white-sided dolphin interacts with long time Vancouver Aquarium trainer Lenora Marquez.

As Nightingale reflected on the years of heated debate about cetacean captivity and the series of cetacean deaths that led to this decision, he acknowledged a growing number of residents are questioning the idea of keeping the animals in captivity.

“The aquarium is a victim of its own success, in a sense,” he said. “It has done a great job in sensitizing Vancouverites and Lower Mainladers [to whales and dolphins.]”

But for a non-profit that once upon a time prided itself as a world-class centre for cetaceans, it’s a risk to continue without the charismatic animals.

Nightingale noted that visitor numbers dropped “a bit” after five of the aquarium’s cetaceans died in 16 months, with the most recent, Chester, a false killer whale, dying just last November.

“We are concerned. But we are more concerned that visitors continue to find an amazing, compelling, engaging and enjoyable experience and we’re certain that we can deliver that kind of an experience.”

It’s also a loss.

Helen the Pacific white-sided dolphin is the last cetacean at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Helen the Pacific white-sided dolphin is the last cetacean at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Nightingale referred to the “tremendous legacy” scientists and veterinarians have created through the aquarium’s cetacean program, specifically in cetacean hearing and the impact of shipping noise.

“Was there more science that needed to be done? Absolutely,” he said, citing concerns about how climate change would affect cetaceans’ metabolism.

“But the basic research with animals that are in human care and trained to participate … that will have to be done somewhere else.”

But spending resources fighting for the right to house and display cetaceans at the aquarium was “debilitating” for the organization, said Nightingale.

“We had a choice to make. You either stand still and let the wind blow you around or you grab a hold of your own destiny.”

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