Staff at the Vancouver Aquarium are concerned after Aurora, the mother of Qila, the beluga whale that passed away suddenly on Wednesday morning, has come down with the same symptoms.
The necropsy conducted by staff on Qila showed inconclusive results, so the aquarium is exploring a wide range of possible causes that could have resulted in beluga’s death and are now, possibly, making Aurora sick.
CEO and president of the Vancouver Aquarium Dr. John Nightingale told reporters this afternoon the progression of symptoms in Aurora matches that in Qila.
Aurora is displaying clinical signs that include abdominal discomfort, nausea, cramping and signs of mild inflammation in her blood. She is also not eating or interacting with staff.
Head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena says Aurora is undergoing many different intensive treatments to cover as many bases as possible. She is being cared for around the clock and is currently being kept in a special medical pool.
Haulena says the rapid, unexpected onset of symptoms that Qila and Aurora were both showing could be the result of a viral or bacterial infection, or even biotoxins in the water or food.
“It’s not something that we have ever had happen at the aquarium before,” said Haulena.
The aquarium is working closely with the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to perform biotoxin analysis on tissue samples from Qila and the food that staff are feeding to their animals.
The aquarium is also working with the BC Centre for Disease Control to investigate any human-borne diseases that are of concern.
“As unbelievable as it is, sometimes animals under our care become sentinels for human health,” said Haulena.
He says Qila was feeling a bit off the week before her death, but behaved normally. A few days before her death she was not eating well, but the night before on Tuesday, she was starting to show interest in fish again and interacting with staff more.
“It was very sudden and unexpected to have her pass away Wednesday morning,” said Haulena.
He says there are no major findings from Qila’s necropsy that they can work with, except for a large, well-defined abscess in her lung, which would have been older than the course of her disease.
“We will be looking at whether that went septic,” said Haulena.
He adds it’s unlikely Aurora’s symptoms are the result of “grieving” for Qila because that’s not how cetaceans respond, but the way Qila’s condition progressed did not follow the pattern normally seen in other whales.
Still, Haulena says there is a small chance that Aurora and Qila’s symptoms are unrelated.
“I am incredibly concerned because this was so unexpected and did not follow what we would normally expect of an animal that was very sick. These guys are our family, and when you lose one and you don’t know why, it’s not very much fun,” said a tearful Haulena.
Nightingale says the last 24 hours have been very hard for the entire team, and for him personally as well.
“Never has a loss of an animal affected me as much as Qila’s death,” he said.
WATCH: The death of one of the Vancouver Aquarium’s beluga whales has surprised veterinarians and staff; it’s also re-igniting the debate around keeping whales in captivity.