The great whale-in-jail debate

A captive baby beluga’s death in Vancouver sparked soul-searching about the ethics of aquariums

Andy Clark/Reuters/ Les Bazso/ Vancouver Province

When Qila the 2,000-lb. beluga whale twirls, alone in the water, waving her pearly white flippers for the crowd at the Vancouver Aquarium, no one is left uncharmed. The powerful predator has a gentle smile and a knack, it seems, for tricks. She’s magnetic: belugas are plastered on Vancouver buses, in newspaper ads, in magazines. Just getting past the aquarium’s front door can take well over a half-hour. Inside, Qila and her three beluga mates have a little under two million litres in which to roam. After an $8-million upgrade scheduled for completion in 2013, their pool will double in size.

That upgrade is coming with the help of $25 million in funding, announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell a few weeks ago in front of the blue-green tank. Ottawa’s $15-million share comes from its controversial stimulus spending fund. But there’s heat, and it’s not the Economic Action Plan that’s generating it. Weeks ahead of the announcement, Nala, the aquarium’s youngest beluga, died suddenly. A penny and some rocks were found lodged in her blowhole, igniting a local debate: should the aquarium keep beluga whales at all? Aquarium staff, many of whom rushed to be by Nala’s side the night she died, said the penny may have been tossed in by a visitor—proof, said Lifeforce founder Peter Hamilton, of the flaws inherent in “aquarium prisons.”

Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale blames an “active few—five or 10” for the kerfuffle over its cetaceans. But even the Vancouver Province, the city’s conservative tabloid—hardly the beating heart of environmental debate—editorialized that Nala’s death, “the latest in a long line of whale deaths at the aquarium,” called into question “the wisdom and morality of keeping captive whales and other marine mammals.” It is a practice,” they wrote, “that must end.”

The calf’s demise was also the last straw for Stuart MacKinnon. The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation commissioner tabled a motion asking for a referendum on the issue in 2011. Board chair Aaron Jasper, who believes the whales serve to educate, accused MacKinnon of “political mischief,” slamming the motion as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The board, fearing a lawsuit, ultimately voted against the idea (the city has a deal with the privately run aquarium to not review bylaws regarding captive cetaceans until 2015).

Who belongs in the zoo is an age-old question, but a spate of recent accidents is putting the lens on the conflicts inherent to running modern aquariums. Given all we now know about animals, and how much we can learn from the Internet and next-generation documentaries like Planet Earth, some even wonder if their educational impetus is still valid.

Controversy isn’t limited to Vancouver, or belugas. This spring, the U.S. held congressional hearings on the issue after the brutal death of killer-whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. In February, in front of a horrified audience, the park’s biggest orca grabbed Brancheau by the ponytail and dragged her into the deep, where she died from drowning and “multiple traumatic injuries.” Isolation, stress and the animal’s raging hormones were likely to blame. The whale, it emerged, had been involved in two other human deaths, including an attack on a B.C. woman at a Victoria park, in 1991.

Marine parks aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. A scathing report, released in June, highlighted systemic problems, and a laundry list of gruesome deaths, at the Calgary Zoo: an animal hanged by a toy, another caught in a hydraulic door, stingrays that suffocated in a tank. Even Knut, the world’s favourite polar bear, has begun acting deranged at his home zoo in Berlin. But the aquarium question is particularly resonant in Vancouver, where voters chose to close the Stanley Park Zoo after a 1993 referendum—the continent’s first major zoo to be shuttered for ethical reasons.

Few, even among the save-the-whales set, take a dim view of the aquarium, which has a long history of working with scientists to produce good science, says DFO biologist Steve Ferguson. Right now, scientists are working with its dolphins to determine why their sonar can’t detect fishing nets—their biggest threat in the wild. The goal, aquarium vice-president Clint Wright, explains, is to find “some simple device” that could be attached to nets, making them detectable to dolphins. And some cetacean research, on blood chemistry, for example, can “only” be done in aquariums, says Christine Erbe, a biologist based in Australia, who conducted pioneering research at the aquarium on how man-made noise interferes with beluga communication.

The aquarium has also been credited with changing the image of killer whales, with the accidental capture of an orca named Moby Doll in 1964. Until then, the whales were seen as vicious man-eaters, and shot on sight (the feds even mounted a machine gun on the B.C. coast for the purpose; it was never fired). That Moby turned out to be as vicious as a poodle revolutionized view of the charismatic whale, now an adored West Coast icon.

But in the years since, justification for aquariums has grown “weaker and weaker,” says Richard Ellis, the American Museum of Natural History’s top marine conservationist: we don’t learn much about cetacean intelligence by making them jump through a hoop, he says—“except that they are strangely amenable to doing stupid pet tricks.” In captivity, “the best we can hope for,” he says, “is to learn how an animal can adapt its normal survival functions to an abnormal situation.” In the wild, belugas can roam more than 100 km a day, chatting and interacting in pods of 20 or more. In confinement, many become depressed and neurotic, says Humane Society International president Naomi Rose. Biologist Alexandra Morton, who studied orca vocalizations at Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes, Calif., witnessed the “heart-breaking anguish” one female felt when her young starved to death. She “threw her body against the tank wall”—she was deeply attached but didn’t know how to nurse.

Acquiring whales, too, is getting harder. Public outcry after a news clip showed the brutal capture of four belugas in Hudson Bay led to a ban on their capture in Canadian waters in 1992. (Russia is now the main supplier of belugas, providing 26 to Marineland, in Niagara Falls, Ont.) Vancouver’s 1996 decision to stop bringing in captured whales effectively killed its relationship with orcas. But belugas, says Wright, are breeding well.

Yet marine mammals are a big draw, and marine parks are big business: in one of the largest private equity deals of 2009, Blackstone Group LP paid US$2.7 billion to buy 10 entertainment parks, including three SeaWorlds. The Calgary Zoo hopes to acquire belugas, funding permitting: “Those charismatic animals are driving visitation,” president and CEO Clement Lanthier said.

The American writer Susan Orlean, who wrote about Keiko, the star of Free Willy, sums up our conflicting feelings. “Even though I was convinced that whales should be wild,” she wrote, “I begged to touch him. I will never forget the soft spongy feel of Keiko’s rubbery skin or the sensation, when he lifted his huge blocky head just above the water, that we exchanged a real look, eye to eye, full of primal meaning and connection. That’s exactly why it’s so hard to do what is right with regards to wild animals, because having such a creature that close really is magical.”