Last week, Aurora, a female beluga who spent the last 26 years of her life at the Vancouver Aquarium, died at the age of 29, just nine days after the death of her daughter Qila. According to the Vancouver Aquarium, a virus or toxin probably caused the death of the two belugas. The Aquarium had a project to expand its beluga pool, but as a result of this tragedy, the project was put on hold pending details as to the exact cause of the mortalities. These events also revived the debate on the Aquarium’s captive cetacean program.

The Story of Aurora and Qila at the Vancouver Aquarium

Aurora comes from the Hudson Bay beluga population. She was the last beluga acquired by the Aquarium before it instituted its policy of acquiring only captive-born cetaceans. According to the Aquarium, Aurora immediately won over the hearts and inspired generations of visitors, employees and volunteers with her curious nature and gentle personality, in addition to enabling staff to educate millions of visitors about her species and Its natural ecosystem. Aurora’s daughter, Qila, was the first beluga ever conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium.

These Vancouver Aquarium belugas contributed to studies on whale physiology, hearing and communication between mothers and their calves. In particular, they played a key role in Valeria Vergara’s studies and the identification of critical contact calls to maintain cohesion within the group. Valeria now compares these results in the wild. Among other things, she is attempting to determine whether noise from boats and shipping traffic in the St. Lawrence Estuary can mask the contact calls between mothers and their calves, and thus affect the survival of the latter.

Now what?

Following the death of Aurora, the Vancouver Aquarium has been heavily criticized by animal welfare groups and several individuals have demonstrated in front of the Aquarium to demand that the institution stop keeping animals in captivity for entertainment purposes and that it focus exclusively on animal rescue.

However, some scientists defend the Aquarium. “Their programs provide valuable information. People think you can learn everything from whales by observing them in the wild, and that’s not true,” points out Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia.

Mentalities with regard to cetaceans in captivity are evolving. This unfortunate incident is thus probably a good opportunity to launch a constructive debate on the issue amongst citizens and, if need be, to redefine the role of the Aquarium. Sarah Kirby Yung, chairperson of the Vancouver Park Board, proposes to include a ballot question in the 2018 municipal elections as to whether Vancouverites would like to see the Aquarium maintain its cetacean captivity program.

Sources:

Virus or toxin likely killed beluga whale at Vancouver Aquarium (CTV News Vancouver, November 28, 2016)

Reason for death of two beluga whales at Vancouver Aquarium still unknown (CTV News, November 28, 2016)

Vancouver Aquarium under fire after death of its last two belugas (in French) (Radio-Canada, November 27, 2016)

Update expected on death of Aurora at Vancouver Aquarium (CTV News Vancouver, November 26, 2016)

Vancouver Aquarium criticized after death of second beluga (in French) (La Presse, November 26, 2016)

To learn more:

Valeria Vergara project in the St. Lawrence Estuary:

With the Belugas: Week of July 18, 2016 – “Mom, Can You Hear Me?” Further details

With the Belugas: week of July 25, 2016 – “Bird’s Eye Viewing and Underwater Eavesdropping”… by Valeria Vergara

News - 5/12/2016

Béatrice Riché

Béatrice Riché has served as editor for the GREMM in 2016. She holds an MSc in environmental science and has spent several years working abroad in the fields of resource conservation, species at risk and climate change. Back on the shores of the St. Lawrence, which she keeps watch over every day, Béatrice writes columns on whales, drawing inspiration from events taking place here and afar.

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