Although it's common belief that all the Aquarium's cetaceans were rescued, VanAqua captured belugas from the wild near Churchill Manitoba in 19900. Beluga captures were so violent that the Canadian government soon after outlawed the practice. The beluga shown on the left suffered serious injuries from the ropes used during capture, and so being unwanted for public display, was simply released to fend for itself7. [Photo: LifeForce Fdn.]
VanAqua likes to claim it was the first aquarium to agree to not capture cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises,etc) from the wild. The truth is that this policy is a city bylaw that they agreed to only when faced with the threat of an all-out ban on cetacean captivity. However, this hasn't stopped them from supporting others that still take animals from the wild. Blockbuster revelations in the Georgia Straight revealed that VanAqua supported the Georgia Aquarium's application to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia.103. VanAqua is now preparing to manage the L'Oceanografic marine park in Valencia, Spain, which has one of the largest collections of wild-caught dolphins in Europe.178[Photo: David Doubilet, National Geographic]
All visitors to the aquarium are told that their
two dolphin s, Hana and (Note: Hana died in 2015 at the age of ~21) Helen were rescued from fishermen’s nets and are unsuitable for release. However, they neglect to say that the pair were purchased from Enoshima Aquarium1, which is notorious for its involvement in dolphin drive hunts like those featured in the film “The Cove”2. Because the practice of 'dolphin laundering' is common among marine parks, we may never know the truth of how they were captured179. But by purchasing Hana and Helen, Enoshima had room to bring in more wild dolphins from the drive hunt, so VanAqua's import indirectly supported this despicable slaughter. [Photo: David Doubilet, National Geographic]
We often hear that animals are fortunate to be part of VanAqua's collection, rather than at another marine park like SeaWorld. But clearly their care standards are similar -- SeaWorld currently holds more of VanAqua's belugas then VanAqua does! Imaq is at SeaWorld Florida; Nanuq lived at SeaWorld San Diego and San Antonio from 1997 until his recent death; Allua at SeaWorld San Diego since 200534. As you will see below, their relationship goes much further than simple beluga-sitting. [Photo: SeaWorldSA]
In July's Park Board hearings, CEO John Nightingale said that VanAqua NEEDS to breed belugas in order to have them on display 80 YEARS FROM NOW101. Their international breeding partnership with SeaWorld and others is a matter of public record. A recent article in the Huffington Post detailed the massive artificial insemination program involving these two VanAqua belugas.102. Yet, VanAqua still maintains publicly that they have 'no formal breeding program'.
VanAqua’s claims of the 'exceptional care' their cetaceans receive are not supported by the numbers. In all, 39 captive whales and dolphins have died in their care77. Almost all died before their time; many of them were babies or juveniles. Nala, the 1-year old bred in captivity who passed in 2011, died afer a coin that was tossed into her pool became lodged in her airway5. Of the 9 dolphins VanAqua has had under their "exceptional care," 7 of them are dead66.
There aren’t many charities that can afford a $100 million + capital expansion8. Their CEO, John Nightingale, is rumoured to make on the order of $1,000,000 a year from various aquarium-related business, while about 8 directors make ~$200,000 per year9. Animals for entertainment is big business! So big that a for-profit arm of the Vancouver Aquarium designed/built marine parks in Las Vegas, notably at Mandalay Bay Hotel10. Of course, all that 'non-profit' profit didn’t stop them from receiving $25 million in taxpayer dollars for their expansion11, nor does it bother them that they pay extraordinarily low rent in Vancouver's most celebrated public park..
Zoos and marine parks around the world claim that first-hand experience with captive animals is essential to build a respect for nature. Scientific studies say otherwise, of course12 - people show the same appreciation for nature whether going to marine park or documentary film. And, hey - no large rorqual whales (like fin, blue and humpback whales) have ever been held in captivity. Yet their numbers are now rebounding in the wild after being hunted close to extinction. Turns out, the best conservation strategy is the kindest and cheapest -- all we had to do was stop killing them.
You don’t have to look very far to find aquariums that are massive tourist attractions without keeping marine mammals captive. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California16. Like VanAqua, they've been established as a not-for-profit entity. They are a world famous, must-see attraction on the coast of Northern California and do a TON of marine mammal rescue and research as well - all without that bad aftertaste of captive whales and dolphins.
VanAqua justifies its captive belugas by telling us that "with the rapid environmental changes in the arctic where belugas live, continued research, much of which must be done in marine science centres like the Vancouver Aquarium, is critical to their future.22” However, this whale-saving research program seems to exist only in press releases (it is absent from their website)23, nor have they published a single peer reviewed study on the subject18. The truth is that the vast majority of VanAqua's published research involves animals in the WILD, not the ones in their tanks24. Next time you're there, ask them why, after 50 years of captive research on belugas, not ONE wild beluga has been helped by this research.
Not surprisingly, the people who claim that captive marine mammals are unsuitable for reintroduction into the wild are almost always the ones who are profiting from their captivity. Go figure. No one is suggesting just plopping captive belugas in the ocean and waving good-bye. There are established rehabilitation procedures, beginning with sea pens that slowly get them ready for release. It's already being done and it can even work after long periods of captivity17.[Photo: P. Connelly]
FACT @vanaqua belugas must do 750-1000 laps/day to match wild behaviour vanaquafacts.org #Vancouver
Nanuq @vanaqua's @SeaWorld stud, crated and shipped 11,400 miles vanaquafacts.org #Vancouver pic.twitter.com/0r9PpbPr7w
Most of @vanaqua's belugas live at @SeaWorld. It's a fact! vanaquafacts.org #Vancouver pic.twitter.com/JmVsFWZk2i
4 of 5 @vanaqua belugas bred in captivity died at age 3 or younger vanaquafacts.org #Vancouver pic.twitter.com/Lul0M0gpTu #YVR
Aquariums and marine parks like @vanaqua teach domination, not conservation vanaquafacts.org pic.twitter.com/ZbN0mYIvV8 #Vancouver #YVR
29,221 reasons @vanaqua is more about entertainment than conservation vanaquafacts.org #Vancouver pic.twitter.com/CXIzgG1ZFv #YVR
World's most famous animal researcher. Against cetacean captivity at @vanaqua vanaquafacts.org pic.twitter.com/he0cODKG36 #Vancouver #YVR
50 years of captive beluga research at @vanaqua, not 1 wild beluga has benefitted vanaquafacts.org #Vancouver pic.twitter.com/e0hsH0pw2q
Convenience does not justify captivity @vanaqua vanaquafacts.org pic.twitter.com/45yLZuUY8L #Vancouver #YVR
.@vanaqua world view pic.twitter.com/45yLZuUY8L vanaquafacts.org #EmptyTheTanks #Vancouver #YVR
Still waiting for @mayorgregor to #EmptyTheTanks @vanaqua vanaquafacts.org pic.twitter.com/8Gpbm5u7y3 #vanpoli #Vancouver
The Vancouver Aquarium cetacean breeding program... is no longer defensible by science.Dr. Jane Goodall, Celebrated Primatologist and Ethologist
The Vancouver Aquarium should begin to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity.Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson
“It’s a tired old argument from the captive industry. To be quite blunt, what it really teaches children is that it’s OK to mistreat these animals.Dr. Paul Spong, OrcaLab Founder
It’s not that everything about the Vancouver Aquarium is bad, it’s just that this one thing is terrible.Alexandra Morton, Biologist, VanAqua Murray Newman Award Winner
The science is clear; whales and cetaceans are thinking beings. It’s beyond me to understand any rationale why they should be in captivity.”Adriane Carr, Vancouver City Councillor
I’d like to see whales and dolphins out of our park. Phased out, not brought out ever again. Period.Constance Barnes, Vancouver Park Board Commissioner
A lot of information you see in Blackfish about how they have large brains and are very emotional animals… the more information we see, we see that they need to be in the wild.Sarah Blyth, Vancouver Park Board Commissioner
Today, anyone with an HDTV and the Discovery Channel is more likely to expose themselves and their kids to marine biology, with better visuals than anything offered by fish-tossing whale trainers.Geoff Olson, Vancouver Courier