Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
VIA store 300x100
Join our Newsletter

Vision park board commissioners call for end of whale captivity at Vancouver Aquarium

As aquarium expands so does opposition to the captivity of whales and dolphins

Part one of a two-part story

In an unprecedented move two Vision Vancouver park board commissioners are stating publicly they want all cetaceans — whales and dolphins — phased out at the Vancouver Aquarium.  

Not coincidently, the city’s bylaw surrounding the keeping of cetaceans in captivity is up for review next year.

Vision commissioner Sarah Blyth says it was her decision to not seek a third term on park board that gave her the inspiration to speak out.

“No one doubts the aquarium does amazing conservation work,” Blyth said. “But everyone I talk to asks about the whales and dolphins.”

The move is surprising because in 2010 a motion by Green Party commissioner Stuart Mackinnon recommending a non-binding plebiscite on keeping captive cetaceans be part of the 2011 civic election was voted down by the ruling Vision Vancouver commissioners, with the exception of COPE’s Loretta Woodcock.

But, Blyth notes, the increased push by some residents and political parties to include a referendum in the November election regarding the issue could be ill-timed.

“I’d like to see the question asked, ‘Should whales be kept in captivity at this time?’” Blyth said. “But we can’t bind another board to a decision we’ve made.”

The deadline to include a referendum in the November election is May, with the final decision to be made by council.

“But we need to look at all of our options and the best option is to work with the aquarium to find a solution,” said Blyth. “But in the end we are elected to speak for the people.”

Both commissioners admit watching the movie Blackfish was a pivotal moment in their decision to speak out — and is partly why Barnes also wants whales and dolphins phased out at the aquarium, a decision she describes as a personal one. Blackfish is a documentary film about a captive orca named Tilikum, which was involved with the death of three people, including a trainer at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria in 1991.

The film also examines the consequences of keeping orca whales in captivity.

“I’m very supportive of Sarah, and it’s not news I don’t support keeping whales in captivity,” Barnes said. “But I also know the aquarium does really great work on the rescue and rehabilitation side as well as saving endangered species like the Panamanian golden frogs in the news last week.”

Barnes says she receives numerous emails daily from residents concerned about keeping whales and dolphins at the aquarium and forwarded several on to the Courier.

One letter reads, in part, “Clearly there was a time when holding cetaceans captive for the sake of human entertainment was considered socially acceptable. That time has passed. As our understanding of the complex, social nature of these creatures has increased, we are morally bound to re-examine the ethics of their treatment. Therefore I respectfully request that the Vancouver park board and city council call for an immediate halt to any expansion of the Vancouver Aquarium’s captive marine mammal programs until a public referendum on the issue of whale and dolphin captivity can be held during this fall’s municipal election.”

Barnes notes that a referendum was responsible for eventually closing the Stanley Park Zoo. She suggests that could be a route to go when deciding the future of the belugas and dolphins at the aquarium.

Henry Avison, the city’s first park superintendent, started the zoo in the early 1900s after capturing an orphaned black bear and chaining it to a stump. The zoo’s collection eventually included monkeys, penguins, seals and polar bears. In 1994, a referendum was held and residents voted to phase out the zoo. The zoo closed in 1996, after the last remaining animal, a polar bear named Tuk, died.

As Barnes and Blyth attest, the Vancouver Aquarium is world-renowned for its education, research, rescue and rehabilitation and conservation work.

Besides its recent success in breeding the endangered Panamanian golden frog, other accomplishments include the Ocean Wise Program, which encourages restaurants to use sustainable seafoods, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, animal protection programs, numerous research projects and the Marine Mammal Rescue program. Last September, a harbour porpoise nicknamed Levi became the first wild cetacean to have been rehabilitated at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and released back to its natural habitat.

In a statement on its website, the aquarium says displaying whales and dolphins helps “change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations.”

The statement continues: “There is no real substitute for seeing animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and connection. For most people, the Vancouver Aquarium and other aquariums are the only place they can see live whales. Education about conservation is vital to the survival of whales in the wild. If all the people that view whales in aquariums went whale watching, this would have a huge impact on various wild whale populations around the world.”

The aquarium is in the midst of completing the first phase of an almost $100-million expansion, which will eventually include larger whale and dolphin tanks. With the expansion came a renewed lease with the park board until 2029.

Aquarium president John Nightingale says once the larger whale tank is completed the facility will increase the number of belugas on display. There are currently two belugas at the aquarium.

“But, we’ll very likely be bringing back the ones we already own that have been on loan to other accredited institutions,” Nightingale told the Courier. “Not wild whales.”

Nightingale says everything the aquarium does is 100 per cent within the current bylaw and he is well aware the park board will be reviewing that law next year.

Paul Spong, a neuroscientist, cetologist, former Vancouver Aquarium employee and one of the province’s foremost orca experts, agrees the aquarium does some great work, including funding Dr. Peter Ross’s work on ocean pollutants and toxins.

“I just find it very unfortunate that they have a blind spot when it comes to keeping captive cetaceans and wish they would once again lead the way as they did when they decided to end orca shows,” Spong told the Courier during a phone interview from OrcaLab, the small land-based whale research station he founded in 1970 on Hanson Island in the waters of the Inside Passage of northern Vancouver Island. “It’s very disappointing they continue the practice.”

Spong says the trend of keeping “big-brained animals” in captivity is quickly dwindling worldwide so he’s surprised the Vancouver Aquarium is still so determined to continue the practice. He also doesn’t buy the aquarium’s reasoning for keeping cetaceans in captivity.

“It’s a tired old argument from the captive industry,” said Spong. “To be quite blunt, what it really teaches children is that it’s OK to mistreat these animals. There are many other alternatives they could consider.”

Marley Daviduk, a volunteer with Vancouver Animal Defense League, also agrees the aquarium does some good work in its conservation, research, rescue and rehabilitation efforts, and notes the group isn’t asking for the facility’s closure.

“But it has one of the smallest whale and dolphin tanks in North America,” says Daviduk. “Even with the expansion it will remain one of the smallest.

Look at the size of their tanks? Do they look happy? These animals should be in vast bodies of water, which is why we oppose all cetaceans being kept in captivity.”

Daviduk was one of the members of the group who helped organize a silent protest beside the dolphin tank inside the aquarium two weeks ago, in which protesters held up signs with messages such as “Dolphins are DYING to entertain you” and “Captivity is cruel.” While protests outside the aquarium aren’t uncommon, it’s rare to see one take place inside. Daviduk adds just because a whale or dolphin is bred in captivity does not make it right to keep them from the wild.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t suffer,” Daviduk said. “The aquarium holds big parties next to these wild animals and makes them do tricks for their food and that puts a lot of stress on them.”

Daviduk also wants the park board to approve a plebiscite for November.

“These animals shouldn’t be left to live out their lives in a filthy tank,” says Daviduk. “They should be kept in a sea pen on the coast until they pass away.

“That’s the least we can do for them.”

20 Years of Aquarium Politics

  • 1995: The Vancouver Aquarium’s resident orca Bjossa gives birth to a calf that dies almost immediately in front of a crowd of spectators. It was the third infant calf the orca lost in 10 years.
  • 1996: The current City of Vancouver bylaw regarding cetaceans (passed in September 1996) was originally worded to ban future importation of whales and dolphins, but a last-minute amendment by the board’s NPA majority of the day permits the aquarium to acquire animals already living in captivity prior to that year.
  • 1997: Orca Finn dies.
  • 2001: The aquarium’s last remaining orca, Bjossa, is transferred to SeaWorld San Diego and dies months later due to respiratory failure.
  • 2002: Dolphin Whitewings dies in 2002 from respiratory failure.
  • 2003: COPE park board commissioner Heather Deal blindsides her NPA colleagues by making a request to the aquarium on behalf of the board that the facility voluntarily stop importing dolphins until staff can review the issue.
  • 2005: COPE commissioner Loretta Woodcock brings forward a motion asking for a plebiscite to be held during the 2008 municipal election regarding captive whales and dolphins at the aquarium. COPE city councillor Tim Louis brings forward a motion asking for an official referendum on the issue of keeping whales and dolphins at the aquarium. The COPE-dominated park board of the day votes against holding a plebiscite and animal activists accuse the party of breaking a 2002 election promise. Beluga Tuvaq dies unexpectedly at three years old. The NPA-dominated park board of the day rescinds a 1995 board decision requiring aquarium expansion be put to a referendum.
  • 2006: The NPA-dominated park board approves an $80-million dollar expansion of the aquarium. The park board votes to distance itself and withdraw its sponsorship of a $300,000 public consultation regarding the expansion of the aquarium. The Courier obtains a document that shows the NPA park board of the day did not give the aquarium permission to import an 11-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin named Hana and requested the facility not move her to the facility. In response, aquarium president John Nightingale said they were within the letter and spirit of the bylaw. Hana gave birth to a stillborn calf six months later. The $80-million dollar expansion of the aquarium is approved by the NPA-dominated park board.
  • 2007: The NPA majority on park board amends the 1996 bylaw to allow the aquarium to also retain stranded or injured whales and dolphins once they’re brought back to health.
  • 2010: A motion by Green Party commissioner Stuart Mackinnon to hold a plebiscite during the 2011 municipal election regarding keeping whales and dolphins at the aquarium is voted down by Vision Vancouver commissioners with the exception of COPE’s Loretta Woodcock.
  • 2012: 46-year-old beluga Kavna dies of cancer in front of a crowd of spectators. A blogger from California takes photographs of the dying beluga moments before her death.
  • 2014: Phase one of the aquarium’s expansion is scheduled to open this summer.
  • 2015: The City of Vancouver’s bylaw regarding keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is scheduled to be reviewed.

The second and final part of this series will appear in the April 11 edition of the Courier.

(This story has been updated since it first appeared.)