Vancouver Aquarium could look to Baltimore for a plan to free its whales and dolphins

The head of the Baltimore National Aquarium has revealed his organization is debating the future of its popular dolphin programs.

John Racanelli recently told Al Jazeera America that staff are discussing ending captive breeding programs, and also releasingdolphins currently held in tanks into the wild.

“Having calves in this setting may not be the best possible thing for their well-being and health in the long run,” he said.

“The truth is that dolphins are far more cognizant…have much higher level of cognitive capacity, and have very highly demonstrated social behaviors,” he continued. “They can obviously sense future events and correlate future and past events. The more we learn here at the aquarium, the more we realize how different these dolphins are from most of their other cousins in the ocean.”

Al Jazeera describes Racanelli as the first head of a zoo or aquarium in the United States to speak publicly in favour of abolishing a captive breeding program.

It reports that the Baltimore aquarium began discussing ending its cetacean exhibits after two dolphin calves died in 2011.

“We’re asking some tough questions, we really are,” Racanelli said. “I feel we’ve really only scratched the surface.”

He also addressed common arguments used to support keeping large marine mammals in captivity.

Asked what could become of the facility’s dolphins—several of which were born in captivity and have never experienced life in the wild—Racanelli said the answer could be a “national dolphin sanctuary”.

He also took issue with the suggestion that the global population of dolphins benefits from a relatively small number of animals kept in captivity, arguing humans do not learn to properly respect the animals when they interact with them at aquariums.

“In many cases, when people see dolphins in this kind of sterile setting, the messages that they take away with them are not in fact the ones that we as conservationists want them to,” Racanelli said.

The Baltimore aquarium CEO’s statements stand in stark contrast to those made in recent months by top officials at the Vancouver Aquarium.

On June 13, the aquatic facility at Stanley Park unveiled the first phase of a multi-year expansion. The construction project will eventually see larger tanks installed to accommodate greater numbers of beluga whales and dolphins.

Plans to increase the number of cetaceans kept at the Vancouver Aquarium have become controversial.

On April 9, Mayor Gregor Robertson called for an end to whale and dolphin captivity in Vancouver.  The aquarium responded by issuing a statement that questioned the mayor’s understanding of research conducted at the facility.

“We appreciate the fact that he [Robertson] is very supportive of the Aquarium, and we recognize he has personal feelings,” that email read, “but believe he might not understand the vital role belugas and dolphins play in our important conservation efforts.”

Then, on May 26, the Straight reported that renowned primatologist Jane Goodall had issued a letter making the case for an end to whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium.

In response, the aquarium issued a statement attributed to vice-president Clint Wright that suggested Goodall did not fully comprehend the situation.

“The Vancouver Aquarium has the greatest respect for Jane Goodall but her information may be incomplete,” Wright stated. “The current science is clear that beluga whales live as long, if not longer, while in human care. Scientific and behavioural evidence shows that cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium are content and thriving.”

Despite such calls for change at the aquarium, CEO John Nightingale has repeatedly told media that plans to acquire more large marine mammals will “likely” go ahead.

“We do intend that cetaceans continue to play a vital role in engaging the public,” he told the Straight in a March 11 telephone interview.

The Vancouver Aquarium presently keeps two Pacific white-sided dolphins named Helen and Hana, two beluga whales named Aurora and Qila, a pair of Pacific harbour porpoises named Jack and Daisy, plus a number of sea otters, seals, and sea lions. It also owns three additional belugas currently on “breeding loan” to SeaWorld parks in the United States.

The Stanley Park facility is now one of the last aquariums in Canada holding large marine mammals in captivity.

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Comments (29) Add New Comment
Daniel Tanner
It is an incredible turn to hear that the head of a large national aquarium believes that people do not learn to properly respect these animals when seeing them in captivity. To have someone of that stature make such an admission is the aquarium equivalent of Edward Snowden - it shakes the whole justification for these places to the core and exposes the real truth of the matter.
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Barbara
They can say whatever they want
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Daylon
It's an absolute breath of fresh air to see a CEO think of the animals before the money or facility(in Nightingales case he likes to call it "rescue" and rehab"). I applaud that this aquarium is a forward thinking aquarium. I only hope the board of the Aquarium understand how Their current business model is going to fail. They need to be leaders not followers.
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Michele Baillie
I believe Cetaceans are ensouled; people like you and I. Let them go.
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George Terwilliger
You know what I find rather ironic in terms of this whole debate is that just down the road from the aquarium, there is a horse drawn carriage ride that operates as a for profit business that doesn't seem to generate any controversy. Riding a Horse drawn carriage certainly isn't education or conservation. These same animal activists must have seen it as they make their way to the aquarium. Even Constance Barnes, the voice of the whales has supported the operator for over 15 years. Indeed in March of this year a motion passed without any opposition to a
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future thinkers
In changing times, if an organization were to survive, it needs to evaluate and change to fit the climate. Baltimore National Aquarium obviously has strong leadership who is thinking about its future and how thrive in the future world. Dinasours like the Vancouver Aquarium (under the self serving leadership of John Nightingale) cannot see past its current bank deposits, will crumble and die. No amount of expansion is going to save them if they refuse to change. The Vancouver Aquarium will pour all its money and pride into its own demise.
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Holly Chapman
I think it would be wonderful if all of these places were forced to watch Black Fish.....
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Jon Wrigley
The Georgia Straight does realize that unlike America, Canada only ever had a handful of aquariums in the first place right? I mean technically the Vancouver Aquarium is the only active aquarium in Canada that displays cetaceans, since MarineLand is technically a theme park with an animal display and the other aquariums of which there are about four have never displayed cetaceans.
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Ian Boothby
No captive whale has even been released and survived. Freeing them means their deaths. Any article that talks about freeing the whales is lying to its readers for the sake of a catchy headline.
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Hank Werner
@Ian but no one cares about that! Seriously facts are for suckers as long as they free the majestic beasts that I can commune with because we are one with them. Also Ian you need to watch that documentary about orcas at Seaworld which must be how all animals are treated in captivity!
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Felix-Marie Badeau
I've known for some time that all of the cetaceans at VanAqua have been rescued from other facilities or from injuries sustained in the wild. These animals would not be able to survive release. For example the dolphin who barely has any front fins because of being tangled in fishing line and sustaining injuries that would have meant the end of her in the wild. So which is more humane, leaving an incredibly intelligent creature to die a shitty death or rescue it and learn better how we can protect the species in the wild?
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erin
We see these comments (like that of Felix-Marie Badeau) every time anything on the Vancouver Aquarium is written. That if it weren't for captivity, these animals would be dead in the wild.

Can somebody please explain for me why exactly that is the case? I'm seriously asking.

Do dolphins and beluga whales (pretty large animals) really have so many predators in B.C. waters that they would immediately be hunted down and killed upon release?

Is it true that there are really no cases of successful releases? If so, can somebody provide a link with that info or detailed case studies indicating release is certain to equal death?

And that's all just about injured animals.

Are animals raised in captivity equally as helpless in the wild? Like they really wouldn't stand a chance?

I don't really buy it.
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Daniel Tanner
Hi Erin -- you shouldn't buy it. That's what this article tells us, is that there are viable alternatives to making these animals perform. It is true that most captive animals would likely perish if immediately released to the wild, but no one is suggesting that. Some animals may be able to be rehabilitated in sea pens prior to release. There are now a number of examples where cetaceans subject to long-term captivity have been successfully released and were found to have located and rejoined their original pods! HEre's one recent example:

The fact of the matter is that the zoo and aquarium industry HATES animal sanctuaries of any kind, partly because they make them look bad and partly because sanctuaries do not make money from the animals. And MONEY is what this is all about.
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Jon Q. Publik
Uh whut where exactly does it state that there are viable alternatives? My basic reading comprehension shows that the Baltimore aquarium is considering sea pens but that is clearly in the early stages.

Daniel both the National Aquarium and Vancouver Aquarium are non-profit entities, it seems like you don't understand the basic concept of a non-profit. Furthermore, you state that there are numerous cases, yet don't reference a single one.

@Erin have you ever seen a Beluga in BC Waters? If so please let the world know, since it would be breaking news. Also Dolphins are a favorite snack of the Killer Whale which is plentiful in our coastal waters.
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Jo
Bottom line. Take greed out of the equation and you'll have no captivity program at all!
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Suanne
How about this twist: call the admission "Funding towards programs to set them free by 2016". There would be a windfall of support. They then demonstrate the continued progress how they are training them to survive out where they belong. This could work! That's if their captors cooperate.
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Lorraine N.
Actually Keiko was released back into the wild and was doing well. He was considered a successful release that did survive for quite a bit, longer than what handlers originally thought for Keiko not being a likely candidate to do so since he did have some problems before they released him and waited to release him when he was well enough. He did get pneumonia after a while and died from it during his freedom but that was not much of a surprise considering the history before his release, especially for an unlikely candidate to begin with on being an orca released back into the wild when they had started to attempt it. So to say no orca or dolphin or any other has never successfully livedo in the wild during release is a lie. Heck there are even some articles about successful releases back into the wild on Dolphins that you can look up yourself, including Keiko and go from there on what you think about this whole thing. I'm not saying anything about pros or cons to captivity or the wild since everyone has their own idea. I'm just saying release back into the wild is not impossible and not successful.
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Cassandra
@John Q. Will you please clearify which coastal waters you are referring too? We know hardly anything about pretty much any other populations of orca other than the various resident and transient families that travel between Alaska and CA, I'm not sure where you're getting your assumptions. There's no evidence of either of those species being regularly eaten by the various orca that might cross paths with either bottlenose or beluga. Most of what we "know" are educated guesses. But since almost every other population is very poorly studied, we don't know if orca would eat them. White-sided dolphins are indeed a favorite food of certain orca types. But there's no evidence a released dolphin or beluga would be immediately swallowed up by either of the populations we actually KNOW about. Even then, the most studied populations are STILL poorly understood. We have no idea where they go for half the year. There's guesses, but no proof. I've lived in WA State all my life and have seen orca in both captivity and the wild. In the wild is much more impactful than in captivity. Seeing them rubbing each other squeaking and screeching at each other, jumping for fun, hunting, playing with and sharing their food, and even just having them porpoise past your house for literally one minute at amazing speed, makes much more of an impression. Then watching an orca, jumping on command, fight each other, get tossed food, then after the show, swim the same pattern, around... And around... And a round... There's just ZERO question where orca belong... Its NOT little pools... They need to let the animals that can't be released die out, and free the ones that are fair candidates. Keiko(free willy) survived for years in the wild, went on a HUGE expedition because he felt like it, when they found him again, he was fat and happy. Yes he went to visit people, but people haven't directly hurt him since he was what... 5 i believe.So he had no reason to stay away. Didn't mean he was unhappy, or craving food. He was just visiting. He was seen with wild orca. But for unknown reasons he kept to himself. He lived a happy last few years. He was VERY healthy, and died of a condition that wild orca die from as well(pneumonia). His release was NOT a failure it was a complete success. It seems to be lost to people that obviously he was eventually going to die. He was unique, but he wasn't immortal
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Keven Schidlowsky
Springer was a Killer Whale which was successfully introduced back into the ocean. Then you have Granny who is 103 years old and was spotted off Canada's western coast with her baby, if this alone does not tell you that the conservation of orcas is thwarted by greed and lies then you, whoever you are, are ignorant and should go back to school and learn your ABC's. Why do we need to capture these beautiful beings and display them in bathtubs for the public's pleasure? When I went to see the Vancouver Aquarium it made me sad, the Belugas were swimming back and forth so fast that it was the equivalent of a tiger pacing his cage. Absolutely disgusting practice that business model of aquariums have. Do what you know to be good and proper but when you know better, then do better. So many things to say to those people which know better but are greedy, lie and spread their ignorant propaganda even when they know their views/beliefs are wrong and are not the way of the future. Things are changing and one day zoo's and aquariums will be taught in schools how during our time we were so uneducated about animals that we put them in little tanks and cages to study them and preserve them for entertainment purposes, the kids will say "how sad and caveman like".
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@Erin
Seems like the only predators to these beautiful souls are the human race. We suck, big time.
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