Steve Huxter: Surely the Vancouver Aquarium can imagine a future without whales in captivity

With the prospect of a Vancouver park board that is feeling unencumbered by commissioners’ need to keep their seat at the table, and with the real possibility of changes to existing bylaws governing the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity, John Nightingale, the Vancouver Aquarium’s president and CEO, is playing the sympathy card and claiming that Vancouver’s much-loved aquarium will die without whales and dolphins in its tanks.

Nightingale argued, as paraphrased in a Vancouver Sun story published June 12, that “changes to a bylaw governing the keeping of whales, could seriously damage the aquarium’s reputation as a world leader in marine research”.

Most certainly, it’s an alarmist statement by Nightingale and designed to rally support. In reality, Vancouver is a relatively small participant in the world of dolphin and beluga research. A more likely motivation for his worry is the lost effort that has been spent on planning the new exhibit if the aquarium must redesign their business model to suit a facility without whales and dolphins in captivity.

In contrast, John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, talking about his aquarium’s recent decision to voluntarily evaluate retiring their eight dolphins to a sea-pen sanctuary, told the Baltimore Sun: “We know so much more today about the animals and about our evolving audience — and frankly how urgent the need has become to protect the health of oceans and the Chesapeake Bay. As a conservation organization first and foremost, we have to evolve.”

Not unlike the Vancouver Aquarium, Baltimore’s National Aquarium describes itself as a “nonprofit aquatic education and conservation organization whose mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures”.

Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and bio-psychologist with Emory University and a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution, has been studying dolphins and whales for 20 years and said of the National Aquarium: “Simply asking whether dolphins should be kept in captivity makes the National Aquarium more progressive than other aquatic attractions. They should be applauded. Other places make justification for why [dolphins] are in captivity, and they are asking the question: Should they be?”

Questioning the ethics of holding cetaceans in captivity is worldwide in scope. Sixteen countries in the world have either banned the holding of whales or dolphins in captivity or have set standards of care that make it impossible to establish and maintain a facility.

Richard Branson and Virgin Holidays recently hosted a group of stakeholders and animal welfare advocates to discuss the ethics of promoting vacation destinations that offer encounters with dolphins or whales in captivity.

While Canada has only two facilities that hold whales and dolphins in captivity, the refusal to change by those facilities places us in the company of countries such as Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. However, this week, the U.S. Congress adopted an amendment that forces the Department of Agriculture to review its regulations regarding cetaceans in captivity, devoting US$1 million specifically to examining the issue of holding killer whales in captivity.

We are falling behind, and as a well accredited and widely respected organization, it’s time that the Vancouver Aquarium put aside its intransigence. With public opinion changing so quickly, what will the aquarium do if, in another 10 years, visitors stop making their way through the front gate, because they have whales and dolphins in captivity?

Surely, a world-renowned aquarium that has so much going for it, and with such strong support from its community, can reimagine itself to fit an evolved world.

Comments (23) Add New Comment
Hear Hear!!!
Rating: +3
Brian Grover
"what will the aquarium do if, in another 10 years, visitors stop making their way through the front gate, because they have whales and dolphins in captivity?"

I stopped going for that very reason years ago. Instead I look for opportunities to see cetaceans in the wild, like last summer, watching a gray whale and calf feeding along the shore of Vargas Island.
Rating: +13
I respect the work they do, I'd love to see some of the exhibits, but I refuse to enter a facility that has marine mammals in captivity doing tricks. They day they are banned is the day the aquarium will start getting my money.
Rating: +15
Lance Redfern
I love these anti-captivity commentary articles, it allows every day readers to see the fallacies of this movements arguments from another viewpoint. Steve unfortunately wants to sensationalize an issue that few citizens in the city of Vancouver actually care about.
Rating: -22
Trix are for kids
@Lucille how do you know that the marine mammals are doing tricks if you have never been inside? It's quite possible that they are debating amongst themselves how silly this whole kerfuffle is.
Rating: -17
Howard Garrett
Good points Steve, well said. It seems to me it's past time for the whole captive whale and dolphin business to devise a new model for attracting visitors by phasing out the suffering cetaceans and building an array of simulated encounters with animated and animatronic special effects experiences that would be thrilling and fun, and would actually be educational about how they really live and our responsibility to protect and restore them and their habitats.
Rating: 0
Jeff Matthews
In this debate, it is important to remember that the Park Board has discussed a possible "phase out" of cetaceans. That means that the aquarium would keep its current collection of whales and dolphins for a decade or more, time enough to adapt its business model to a captive-free one. Given that there are other highly successful aquariums that don't keep captive whales and dolphins, this should not be difficult. Clearly, what the Park Board has suggested is entirely reasonable and fair.
Rating: +15
Aaron Hildebrandt
It's true--the aquarium could probably survive without wales in dolphins in captivity. Though I don't want to be the person to declare that these animals would literally be better off dead. None of the whales or dolphins currently held by the aquarium are able to survive in the wild--maybe we should just euthanize them now?

Or do the aquarium's opponents have a better plan?
Rating: -9
Well written article. John Nightingale needs to EVOLVE or resign. The shareholders should be asking him to resign.
Thanks to the straight once again for having balls.
Rating: -2
Anand Mani
Well said. What puzzles me is how the captive cetaceans contribute to our knowledge about their fellow animals in the wild. Do the wild orcas jump for titbits? Splash beachgoers? Have still-born or short-lived calves?

Mr. Nightingale is being disingenuous—if the justification is research, the aquarium could use the considerable sum spent on keeping the whales and dolphins to pay for real open ocean research à la Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and perhaps use James Cameron's 3-D film technology to wow the crowds with wild whale footage (and even make money from licencing the films to other aquariums).
Rating: +10
Nightingale obviously doesn't give a shit about cetaceans. If he did, he'd free them all. As far as research is concerned, he could learn more from google! No, what he cares about is his 'bonus', which is no doubt linked to ticket sales. 'Nuff said.
Rating: -5
Lisa Brown
Realistic and refreshing media viewpoint that is independent of being on the Vancouver Aquarium payroll. I stopped going to the Vancouver Aquarium years ago and do not take my out of town visitors either because of the cetaceans in captivity, inhumane breeding programs and close association with organizations such as $eaworld. I am disgusted that any portion of my tax dollars were being used to line Nightengale's pockets and supported the expansion on park land. So many budget cuts in our schools and to other essential programs, yet millions ? of our tax dollars were used to support inhumane captivity of more cetaceans????
Rating: -8
You are rather disingenuous with your writing.

For instance if one were to investigate further to learn about Richard Branson's meeting with stakeholders, and go directly to the source they would find, at and written by Richard Branson himself is the following: "Vancouver Aquarium, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of aquatic life, have been among those involved so far too. In 1996, they became the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture whales and dolphins from the wild for display. Their own commitment provided inspiration for our pledge."

It was the Vancouver Aquarium that provided the inspiration for improvements worldwide for cetaceans. To ignore this important fact in even one piece of your 'story' completely invalidates the rest.

When this meeting of experts, and others such as Paul Watson recognize the Vancouver Aquarium as a valuable "successful educational network to bring more awareness of what is happening in our oceans to the public in British Columbia", you may as well be aligned with anti-vaxxers like Jenny McCarthy - lacking key aspects of critical thinking.
Rating: +3
There is no whales in captive the ones were born in captive they can't survive out there they can't defended on there owne , and the other animals brought in be help get them back out there .
Rating: -4
Save Vancouver
Today it's the whales, and in 10 years the same anti-everything protestors will be posting here about the "inhumane" practice of keeping wild fish cooped up in tanks.

When did Vancouver go off the rails and become home to so many backward malcontents who can't do anything except show up at this weekend's protest du jour?
Rating: -5
Alan Layton
Anand Mani - I agree with you about how you can learn anything about whales in the wild by studying them in captivity. The only research Van Aquarium really does is how to keep cetaceans alive in captivity longer. They know that their track record of poor health, low birth rate and short life spans are very bad for business so anything they can learn to keep them living (and performing) longer is better for their bottom line. Every sudden death is one more nail in their coffin so avoiding them takes top priority.
Rating: +4
Teresa Wagner
Thank you for a great article.
Release the whales into sea pens or the ocean and stop any further breeding or importing of whales.
Rating: -1
Steve Huxter
Dear "Fact",

"disingenuous" love that word.

If you were to ask Paul Watson, Dr, Naomi Rose or any of the other animal welfare advocates who were at the meeting; if they think the Vancouver Aquarium should still have cetaceans in captivity, they would answer with a confident... no.

Vancouver was quite comfortable in making the pledge, almost twenty years ago, to no longer take cetaceans from the wild because they were confident they could maintain their population from surplus in other facilities.

This debate is not about taking animals from the wild, it is whether they should be in captivity at all.
Rating: +2
If the Aquarium has gained knowledge from keeping whales in captivity, how is it that after all this time they don't know how to successfully re-introduce intelligent, healthy creatures into an environment where they are the apex predator with no threats to their existence except humans?
Rating: +3
Mark Wembley
@Steve not sure if you are aware but Paul Watson came out supporting the Vancouver Aquarium in 2006 when the issue was previously before the Parks Board.
Rating: -3


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