The last time that an orca gave birth at the Vancouver Aquarium was in 1995. Annelise Sorg, a long-time local animal-rights activist, described the delivery as one of the defining moments of her life.
“The aquarium was full of people,” she said. “Children were screaming and banging on the windows of the underwater viewing gallery. And when this little one died and sank to the bottom, there was a collective gasp.”
For hours, Sorg said, she watched the mother, Bjossa, attempt to raise her calf’s lifeless body from the floor of their tank.
“It would just slip off her nose and slowly drift and fall down to the bottom and lay there again,” Sorg continued. “Bjossa kept doing this until she finally realized that there was nothing that she could do. And then she just lay on the surface of the water, looking at her baby down below.”
It was the third time the orca had lost an infant calf in less than 10 years.
In 2001, Bjossa was transferred to a SeaWorld in San Diego, bringing an end to the Vancouver Aquarium’s exhibition of orcas, sometimes called killer whales. The facility still 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.
Although most aquariums across Canada have discontinued exhibits of large marine mammals, the Vancouver Aquarium plans to increase the number of cetaceans it holds in captivity.
A $100-million expansion is underway and scheduled for completion in phases beginning in 2016. Vancouver Aquarium senior vice president Clint Wright told the Globe and Mail in August 2012 that another beluga will be brought in for a new breeding program. It is unclear what the aquarium’s plans are for its dolphin population—management refused to answer questions for this story—but the construction project includes a significant expansion of the facility’s dolphin habitat that would allow a greater number of animals to be kept there.
According to Sorg, that renovation makes 2014 the last chance to stop the Vancouver Aquarium from obtaining animals it will otherwise hold in captivity for years or even decades.
There’s a park-board election scheduled for November, Sorg explained, at which time citizens should be given a vote on the matter. (The Vancouver Aquarium’s location on public land in Stanley Park means its operation is a municipal matter.)
“This is the last opportunity we have for the public to have a say,” Sorg said. “It is the last chance because this expansion project will be finished by the following year.”
Two scientists previously applauded by the Vancouver Aquarium agree with her.
One of B.C.’s foremost orca experts is Paul Spong, who has run OrcaLab on Hanson Island near northern Vancouver Island since 1970. Spong is celebrated on the aquarium’s website for research he performed there in the late 1960s. But he told the Straight that he opposes the prospect of the aquarium increasing the number of marine mammals it holds in captivity.
“It absolutely disappoints me that they are so determined to keep on exhibiting belugas and dolphins,” Spong said via phone from his lab. “I think that they should recognize, like they have with the display of orcas in the past, that it is a very inappropriate thing to do in this modern age.”
Alexandra Morton, another B.C.–based scientist who studied cetaceans for decades, received praise from the Vancouver Aquarium when in 2006 it bestowed on her an award for excellence in aquatic research. But Morton also told the Straight that she disagrees with keeping cetaceans in captivity and, if possible, would like to see the aquarium return its whales and dolphins to the wild.
“It’s not that everything about the Vancouver Aquarium is bad,” she said, “it’s just that this one thing is terrible.”
Morton once recalled swearing that she’d never stray from science to involve herself with activism. However, as it was for Sorg, an aquarium birth forever changed her mind about marine mammals in captivity.
Morton recounted the story of Corky, an orca held in Los Angeles whose family she traced to B.C. waters. Corky was captured when she was five years old, Morton began, and never learned how to nurse future calves, given the young age at which she was separated from her family.
“I watched her give birth and lose a number of babies,” Morton said. “She lost them and would go on to slam herself against the tank and ram the windows. It was really horrible.…She literally cried on the bottom of the tank for two full days.”
One of the most comprehensive studies examining deaths of marine mammals in captivity was conducted in 2004 by the Sun Sentinel, a Florida newspaper. Investigative reporter Sally Kestin analyzed 30 years’ worth of government documents covering some 7,120 whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.
Kestin found that despite veterinary care and protection from predators and other threats, marine mammals often do not live long in captivity. Of roughly 3,000 animals whose ages could be determined, a quarter died before the age of one, and half were dead before they were seven.
A database maintained by the Orca Project, a collective of North American researchers, sheds further light on the challenges of aquarium breeding. Of the 189 orcas whose deaths are listed, 30 were recorded as stillborn and another 47 did not live past the age of five.
Animals once kept at the Vancouver Aquarium appear in those statistics.
Hana, a dolphin that remains there today, had two calves die in childbirth: in 2006 and 2007. During the 2000s, three beluga whales born at the Vancouver Aquarium died before the age of four. Before the aquarium discontinued its orca exhibits in 2001, Bjossa, once the facility’s top attraction, had three calves die within 100 days of their births.
Health problems associated with captivity lessen as cetaceans get older, but they still persist.
On the phone from Washington, D.C., Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, recounted how visits to the Vancouver Aquarium helped shape lifelong attitudes toward animals. “When you spend so much time with them out in the field, you start noticing how small the tanks are,” she said in a telephone interview.
According to Rose, a growing body of scientific research indicates that cetaceans do not live as long in aquariums as they do in the oceans.
“We have a sense that beluga life spans are about half in captivity compared to what they are in the wild,” she said. “Whales and dolphins in captivity are under a chronic-stress situation, and that affects their health and they die young. That is my hypothesis.”
Leah Lemieux is a Canadian author whose 2009 book, Rekindling the Waters: The Truth About Swimming With Dolphins, explores cetacean intelligence and arguments about captivity. She told the Straight that the science she’s reviewed shows the lifespan of captive dolphins is typically half that of those in the wild.
“With storms and nets and predators taken out of the equation, they should be living longer in captivity,” Lemieux noted. “But we find that that is not the case at all. What we find is stress erodes their immune systems and makes them vulnerable to all kinds of sicknesses and ulcers and so forth.”
Supporting Rose and Lemieux’s arguments is a 2009 Humane Society of the United States report comparing the results of six studies on dolphins and orcas. It states that the annual mortality rates for captive cetaceans range from double to triple those of their wild counterparts.
The consequences of prolonged captivity are not just physical.
The 2013 documentary Blackfish presents the life of Tilikum, an orca captured in 1983. The film explores the psychological impacts of captivity and Tilikum’s involvement in the deaths of three trainers, one of whom was a 20-year-old biology student named Keltie Byrne who was drowned at an aquarium in Oak Bay, British Columbia.
In a telephone interview, Lori Marino, a science director for the Nonhuman Rights Project who appears in Blackfish, recalled last visiting Vancouver in 2012 for an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference that focused on cetaceans’ intelligence and emotions.
“We talked about what we know about the cognitive abilities of dolphins and whales and what that says about how well they fare in captivity,” she said. “A dolphin with just another dolphin or one other whale is essentially like someone in solitary confinement; there is just no social infrastructure there for their lives.”
Marino explained that captivity’s effects on intelligent cetaceans include repetitive tendencies, hyperaggression, and self-mutilation. “A complete decoupling of their ability to control their behaviour,” she said. “We see, basically, the same things in dolphins and whales that we see in primates—including humans—who are psychologically disturbed.”
On the phone from his lab on Hanson Island, Spong used another phrase to describe cetacean captivity: he called it “sensory deprivation”, a term associated with the George W. Bush administration’s aggressive handling of enemy combatants.
“These are acoustic animals; they live in a world of sound,” Spong explained. “When you deprive them of that normal acoustic environment, you are really subjecting them to sensory deprivation. And we know, in terms of the effects of sensory deprivation, that it is psychologically damaging. That’s been a long-standing method of torture.”
Vancouver Aquarium director of communications Charlene Chiang wrote in an email that president and CEO John Nightingale would not speak to the Straight for this story. Two UBC researchers with ties to the aquarium also declined to be interviewed, instead referring questions to the facility’s communications department, where Chiang refused to answer questions.
The Vancouver Aquarium is unusual among such organizations in that it is located on public land and is a registered charity. However, according to documents filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, in 2012 donations accounted for only 11 percent of earnings while sales of tickets and merchandise constituted 66 percent of proceeds. The year before, those numbers were five percent and 87 percent, respectively. The same documents indicate that in 2012, one staff member collected between $250,000 and $299,000. Seven other full-time employees earned annual salaries of more than $120,000.
Kevin Willis is president of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an industry association of which the Vancouver Aquarium is a member. He told the Straight that animals’ quality of life is one of the organization’s primary concerns.
“We have demonstrated that it is possible to maintain cetaceans in our care and to meet their welfare needs and their mental-stimulation needs,” he emphasized. “Evidence of that fills scientific journals.”
According to Willis, captive dolphins, on average, live twice as long as those in the wild, and belugas live at least as long as or longer than their free counterparts. (Other scientists the Straight interviewed characterized such findings as outdated.)
Willis, a biologist by training, stated that he supports the Vancouver Aquarium’s decision to increase the number of cetaceans it holds in captivity. “Frankly, that [captive beluga] population needs an infusion of more individuals to get its reproductive potential back,” he explained.
In Canada, aquariums are largely left to regulate themselves via membership in industry associations.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is charged with protecting wild marine life, but its jurisdiction doesn’t extend to mammals held in tanks. The province is charged with ensuring the safe care of captive animals such as grizzly bears, but cetaceans aren’t on its list of responsibilities either. That leaves the municipalities, a level of government that watchdogs like Sorg argue is too close to aquariums to take on monitoring and enforcement responsibilities.
In 1996, the Vancouver park board passed a bylaw forbidding the Vancouver Aquarium to acquire animals via capture. But other than that, the city doesn’t have a lot of control over aquarium operations. In August 2004, CEO John Nightingale went so far as to tell the park board there was no requirement that he even inform it of new acquisitions unless they were dolphins or whales.
Park board commissioner Niki Sharma told the Straight that the city’s agreement with the aquarium is up for review in 2015.
“Certainly, this will be an important one for us to look at and make sure that we are keeping up with the science of the day,” she said. “I think our understanding of these creatures has changed over time.”
But Sharma said activists won’t get their wish for a plebiscite that would give the public a say on cetacean captivity as part of this November’s park-board elections. “We’re waiting for 2015 to have a full review,” she repeated.
The Vancouver Aquarium is now one of the last facilities in Canada holding large marine mammals in captivity.
For this story, the Straight contacted the country’s largest aquariums and zoos in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal. Every one of those operations reported that it does not hold a single dolphin or whale in captivity. (A notable exception is MarineLand in Niagara Falls.) Several that once did house cetaceans emphasized that they eliminated those exhibits in response to public pressure.
Some scientists still maintain that cetacean captivity is necessary to continue beneficial research.
Andrew Trites, director of UBC’s marine-mammal research unit, described the Vancouver Aquarium—a partner—as an “incredible” resource that has advanced researchers’ understanding of the pressures marine mammals face. “I think many studies are contributing to improving the lives of animals in the wild,” Trites told the Straight.
But onetime aquarium partners like Spong and Morton argued that there’s no longer any valid reason for cetaceans to be kept on land. Another former employee, Doug Pemberton, who served as the aquarium’s assistant chief trainer from 1972 to 1991, told the Straight that he left the organization on good terms and didn’t like the film Blackfish. But Pemberton added that he, too, has come to oppose keeping cetaceans in zoos or aquariums.
“I’m not sure that any animals deserve to be in captivity,” he said. “If the aquarium is coming out right now and saying that they are going to get more belugas, I think people would storm the place. I think there is enough anger out there and enough resentment for animals in captivity that that would probably stop it.”
On the phone from her home in Alaska, Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer who takes a lead role in Blackfish, told the Straight that it’s become clear to her that the needs of marine mammals cannot be met in captivity.
She noted that although Blackfish focuses on orcas, there’s a growing body of research indicating that captivity is detrimental to all cetaceans, including the whales and dolphins that remain at the Vancouver Aquarium. “My personal story with beluga whales was that I always thought they seemed sort of disassociated, almost like an autistic child,” Berg said.
She offered a simple observation: that although aquariums house animals, they are designed to meet the desires of humans.
“My dream is to swim with a killer whale, but the killer whale’s dream is not to swim with me,” Berg said.