April 20, 2017 3:35 pm
Updated: April 20, 2017 10:35 pm

Investigation finds two Vancouver Aquarium beluga whales died of unknown toxins

WATCH: The Vancouver Aquarium’s investigation into the deaths of two beluga whales has concluded they were killed by a toxin, that could have been introduced by human interference, Nadia Stewart reports.

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The cause of two beluga whales dying weeks apart at the Vancouver Aquarium in November 2016 was due to an unknown toxin, according to the findings of a five-month investigation.

The comprehensive investigation into the deaths of Qila and her mother Aurora, showed the cause of death in both animals as a toxin but the testing could not identify the exact substance involved. The Vancouver Aquarium said this is not uncommon due to the “very limited time a toxin is traceable in the bloodstream.”

WATCH: Vancouver Aquarium Head Veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena has details of the investigation.


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The investigation also found the toxin was likely introduced by food, water or through human interference.

“The loss of Qila and Aurora was devastating. They were beloved members of our family and the community for more than two decades. Their loss is felt profoundly by our staff, members, supporters, and the public,” Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium said in a release.

Qila, the 21-year-old beluga and long-time resident of the aquarium, was the first to develop symptoms like abdominal cramping, loss of appetite and lethargy. Experts flocked to Vancouver from around the world to provide around-the-clock care, but despite their best efforts, she passed away on Nov. 16, 2016.

The next day, her mother Aurora, came down with the same symptoms. Despite being watched closely and at one point showing signs of possible improvement, the 30-year-old Aurora died nine days later on Nov. 25, 2016.

Necropsies were done on both belugas and were found to be “inconclusive”.

WATCH: Beluga whale deaths at Vancouver Aquarium

Aurora had lived at the aquarium since 1990. Her offspring Qila was the first beluga to be born in captivity in Canada in 1995. Aurora was the last beluga being held at the Vancouver Aquarium. The facility’s five other belugas are living at various locations around the United States.

The aquarium faced heavy criticism from animal welfare groups following the mother and daughter’s death, saying it’s time to review the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity.

In response to protests and online petitions over the beluga’s deaths, a motion to end cetacean captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium was put before the city’s park board. On March 9 following two nights of debate, the Vancouver Park Board voted unanimously to end the program. Cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoises.

In February, Vancouver Aquarium CEO Dr. John Nightingale promised to phase out the research program and discontinue the display of beluga whales in 12 years. He also announced plans to bring back some of their loaned belugas by 2019 and go ahead with the construction of two expanded whale pools.

Currently, only three cetaceans remain at the aquarium — including a harbour porpoise, a Pacific white-sided dolphin and a false killer whale.

Since the passing of Qila and Aurora, the aquarium says it has taken several measures to test, evaluate and reduce the risks in the Arctic habit. They include:

  • To reduce the risk of a toxin being introduced by food / ingestion:
    • An enhanced food-screening process, which far exceeds best practice standards
    • All vegetation adjacent to the habitat that could be considered problematic has been, or will be removed
  • To reduce the risk of a toxin being introduced by water:
    • Mechanical water treatments systems are being overhauled and replaced as a precaution in all habitats that house whales, dolphins, and porpoises
    • New, real-time testing and monitoring of incoming and circulating water within the habitat and mechanical systems has been implemented.
  • To reduce the risk of a toxin being introduced through human interference:
    • Significant security updates have been deployed to monitor perimeter access and reduce potential threats of human interference

Haulena said the investigation has helped the Vancouver Aquarium staff understand what happened as well as determining the best strategy to ensure the safety and welfare of marine mammals in their care.

~ with files from Canadian Press, Amy Judd, Yuliya Talmazan, Jill Slattery and Jon Azpiri.

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