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Monterey Bay makes splash as captive-free model

California aquarium says all facilities have unique approach

This is the final instalment of a three-part series.

When the idea for the Monterey Bay Aquarium was first conceived in 1977, the plan was, and has remained, the creation of an attraction to showcase the marine environment of the waters surrounding it.

Hank Armstrong, vice-president of communications for the aquarium, said four marine biologists developed the idea for the Monterey, California-based facility, which opened in 1984.

“They wanted to interpret Monterey Bay and its habitat and animals,” said Armstrong. “The site is a former cannery that wouldn’t allow for the space to exhibit marine mammals so it was never considered.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an example of a popular aquarium that has never exhibited cetaceans — whales or dolphins. It’s also the model some local animal advocates use as an example when arguing the Vancouver Aquarium no longer needs to keep cetaceans in captivity.

In recent weeks several Vancouver politicians, including Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, have spoken out against the aquarium’s use of whales and dolphins in exhibits.

Armstrong said while Monterey Bay Aquarium staff closely watched a recent attempt by Los Angeles–area state assembly member Richard Bloom to introduce legislation banning the use of whales for entertainment and breeding in California, the facility takes no official position on the issue. Last week a hearing committee recommended the bill be subject to a detailed study before it goes to a vote.

“We have other unique exhibits at Monterey Bay, there is no cookie cutter model,” said Armstrong. “But I will say the Vancouver Aquarium and SeaWorld [San Diego]  do a lot of great things.”

Armstrong said another reason the aquarium never considered keeping whales and dolphins is that it sits on a bay where 27 species of marine mammals live or pass through. He noted on some days whales and dolphins can be seen from the deck of the aquarium. Monterey Bay is part of a National Marine Sanctuary stretching from near San Francisco to south of San Simeon — a distance of about 5,300 square miles.

Armstrong said one of the most popular exhibits at Monterey Bay is the three-storey, living kelp forest — the centerpiece of the Ocean’s Edge galleries. The million-gallon Open Sea exhibit includes dozens of species of sea life, including green sea turtles, a scalloped hammerhead shark, Pacific bluefin tuna and moon jellyfish.

“Monterey Bay has a very regional focus,” said Armstrong. “That was very innovative at the time and a novel approach to the standard strategy of exhibiting one species.”

As reported in the Courier earlier this month, the city’s bylaw surrounding the keeping of cetaceans in captivity is up for review next year. That and the ongoing expansion of the Vancouver Aquarium has many residents and animal advocates pushing the park board to hold a public referendum on the issue as a ballot question in the November civic election.

Outgoing Vision park board vice chair Constance Barnes and commissioner Sarah Blyth started the most recent public debate when they announced they want the aquarium phase out its use of whales and dolphins for breeding and exhibition. Since then Vision Vancouver’s official position is not to hold a referendum, but rather to work with the aquarium in phasing out cetaceans

But animal advocate Janos Maté, coordinator with Whale Friends, is determined to continue pushing for that referendum.
In an email to the Courier, Maté said he’s been involved with this issue since 1990, at a time when the Vancouver Aquarium captured three belugas from Churchill, Manitoba.

“At that time three of us locked ourselves in a cage in front of the aquarium and held a beluga vigil. We fasted for 36 hours in empathy for these poor beings that were kidnapped from their families — and because typically these animals do not eat for a long time due to the shock of their abduction,” Maté said.

According to the book People, Fish and Whales: The Vancouver Aquarium Story written by Dr. Murray Newman with aquarium president John Nightingale, the three belugas were saved from a quota of about 800 whales First Nations people were permitted to kill that year.
Maté, a long time Greenpeace International campaigner, held another caged protest in 1999 in support of Bjossa, the last remaining orca at the aquarium.

Maté stayed in the cage for six days and was joined for part of the time by other protesters. On June 10, 2000, Maté and other animal advocates organized a concert at the Vogue Theatre called “Born to be Wild: Concert for Bjossa.” Attending that concert was Libby Davies, who now sits as the NDP MP for Vancouver East.

Davies said she supports Barnes’ and Blyth’s public stand against keeping cetaceans in captivity. Davies noted she has unsuccessfully submitted a motion to Parliament more than once during her time in office, which reads: “That, in the opinion of this House, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans should decree an immediate moratorium on the live capture and trade of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).”

“The motion is not in the House this time,” Davies told the Courier. “But I’m thinking of reintroducing it.”
Maté said the aquarium has never made any changes to its cetaceans programs without pressure from the public, which is why he argues a referendum is important. The aquarium adopted a policy in 1992 to stop collecting killer whales from the wild. According to People, Fish and Whales, the killer whale program at the aquarium was largely responsible for the ban on capturing wild orcas in B.C. and Washington waters.

Maté said a public poll on this highly contentious issue is long overdue and added the aquarium has always opposed the idea of a referendum for fear of the results.

“In 1996, the park board decided that should the aquarium request permission to expand in Stanley Park, a city-wide referendum would be held,” Maté wrote. “In 2005, the park board decided the question of phasing out cetacean captivity in Stanley Park should be put to a city-wide referendum. Then in 2006, the park board, led by the nose by the aquarium, rescinded both of those earlier decisions…

Holding a plebiscite or referendum to gauge public opinion is a first step. If the public votes against captivity, then that sets a clear direction for the politicians and the aquarium.”