The Vancouver Aquarium has announced a new 12-year beluga conservation program centred on a small group of non-breeding beluga whales that will be brought back to Vancouver from other institutions to participate in an expanded marine mammal research program.
The aquarium said it was going ahead with the plan to expand its Arctic exhibit by spring 2019, but it will phase out the research program and discontinue the display of beluga whales completely by 2029.
The announcement comes several months after the unexpected deaths of two beluga whales at the aquarium, just 10 days apart.
The autopsy results for both 30-year-old Aurora and her offspring, 21-year-old Qila, came back inconclusive. Additional tests were commissioned to get to the bottom of what caused their deaths.
Staff researchers said Monday they still don’t have a definitive cause of why the whales died, despite employing cutting-edge technology in their investigation.
They have ruled out bacterial, viral and fungal causes, and narrowed it down to a toxin that vanished quickly. They can’t rule out that it was somehow introduced to the whales.
“The chain of events leads us to be highly suspect of a toxin,” said head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena. “We did not identify any persistent toxins, so whatever happened was introduced to the whales or the whales were introduced to something in the weeks prior to their mortality. It did its damage and it seems to have gone undetected.”
Haulena said they can’t rule out a malicious intent.
The aquarium said it spent well over $100,000 on various diagnostic tools since the whales died to try to crack the mystery. It is also stepping up its security in light of the findings.
Haulena said — having two whales pass away within a two-week period is unprecedented in the aquarium’s 60-year history.
“In my 25 years of being a veterinarian, it is absolutely the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my professional career,” he said.
The loss of the two whales left a big impact on aquarium’s on-site cetacean program, with only three cetaceans remaining in aquarium’s care — including a harbour porpoise, a Pacific white-sided dolphin and a false killer whale.
Aurora and Qila were the last beluga whales being held at the aquarium. The facility’s five other belugas are living at various locations around the United States. Aurora had lived at the aquarium since 1990. Her offspring Qila was the first beluga to be born in captivity in Canada in 1995.
The aquarium has been criticized by animal rights activists for keeping cetaceans in captivity in the past, and there has been a discussion about holding a plebiscite on the issue on the 2018 municipal ballot.
-With files from Amy Judd and the Canadian Press