Despite an expansion price tag surpassing $100 million, Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale maintains there are no plans in place for additional whale and dolphin exhibits at Stanley Park.
Asked to clarify whether or not the aquarium intends to use additional swimming space to house more beluga whales, Nightingale said that new facilities are “several years” away from completion.
“So we don’t have any firm plans,” Nightingale told the Straight by phone, “except that we do intend that cetaceans continue to play a vital role in engaging the public.”
Those remarks clash with previous statements. On February 19, Nightingale told CBC Radio that the aquarium will “likely” acquire more large marine mammals. And in August 2012, aquarium vice-president Clint Wright told the Globe and Mail that another beluga will be brought in for a new breeding program.
The Vancouver Aquarium stopped keeping orcas in 2001. It still holds two Pacific white-sided dolphins, two beluga whales, and several porpoises, sea otters, seals, and sea lions.
Nightingale was similarly vague about plans for the facility’s dolphin tank.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The dolphins, the two species we have, live in the B.C. Wild Coast [exhibit], and that’s the third phase of our expansion and that is several years away.”
The Vancouver park board is the aquarium’s landlord. In the run-up to the November 2014 civic elections, marine-mammal conservationists called for a plebiscite regarding cetacean captivity.
In February, park-board commissioner Niki Sharma told the Straight that the city’s agreement with the aquarium is up for review in 2015 and that the issue likely won’t be dealt with until that time.
More recently, Vancouver park-board commissioner Sarah Blyth stated on Facebook that she has concerns about the aquarium’s whale and dolphin exhibits.
“I do believe it’s time to have a serious conversation about breeding in captivity and capturing wild and free mammals,” she wrote. “With all of the knowledge we have Im not sure if its the right thing for Vancouver anymore.”
Blyth later told the Straight that the park board is receiving a lot of letters and is aware of an online petition with more than 10,000 signatures that asks for the public to have a say on cetacean captivity.
Nightingale and Blyth were responding to questions regarding a March 17 event that will see Carol Ray, a former Sea World trainer, speak at the Vancity Theatre alongside a screening of the 2013 documentary Blackfish. ("The Vancouver Aquarium hasn’t held or displayed orcas in 13 years, we don’t have anything to do with orcas, and it [the film] isn’t about us," Nightingale said.)
In a telephone interview, Ray told the Straight that Blackfish has been a “great catalyst” for debate.
“I think it sparked a lot of interest in a lot of people who hadn’t given any consideration to the issues of whales and dolphins in captivity before,” she said.
The Vancouver chapter of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has invited park commissioners to attend the screening. Blyth said she thinks that’s a good idea.
“Some of them have already seen it,” Blyth revealed. “But I think it will be an educational experience.”