Researchers are taking advantage of what they call a rare opportunity at the Vancouver Aquarium, which is now home to two young walruses, who are believed to be the first to be born in human care in Canada.
Lakina and Balzak were transported from a Quebec aquarium last winter. The aquarium said the walruses will soon be on display for the public and University of British Columbia research scientist Dr. David Rosen, who is leading the research, calls the walrus the poster “child” for climate change.
“With all apologies to the polar bear but these guys have very specific needs for what kind of ice they need and we know that ice is changing in the north,” Rosen said.
“They have very specific food requirements and we know that the pray fields are going to change as the temperature in the water changes and the PH of the water changes,” he added.
Rosen said the aim of the research is in part to try and predict what could happen to their populations in the wild due to climate change, adding there is limited research about these animals and having a couple of trained juvenile walruses in an aquarium is a unique opportunity.
“I think there are only about 30 in the world… we can track them throughout their life… this early period is a huge gift to be able to study this and our controlled conditions… this is a very important tool in our toolbox,” Rosen said.
The walruses are being praised by Rosen and aquarium staff for their lovable and pleasant personalities.
“They are really engaging, they really seem to seek out attention, they’re very playful animals and are a lot of fun to work with,” the aquarium’s assistant curator of marine mammals Troy Neale said.
Both walruses recently had their second birthdays in May. They may be young, but they’re already very big animals, who are expected to quadruple in size, according to Neale.
He said Balzac, who weighs over 400 kilograms, could get up to 3,700 kilograms when he’s done growing. Lakina, who weighs about 300 kilograms, could grow to 1,700 kilograms, Neale said.
Introducing these walruses to the public marks the first time in the aquarium’s 62-year history and possibly the first time ever people can get up close and personal with the Arctic animals while learning about them.
“As a scientist you’re not supposed to have favourites and you’re not supposed to talk about charismatic animals and so I won’t mention that walruses are the most charismatic animals I’ve worked with in a long time,” Rosen said.
The Vancouver Aquarium has also opened up its research centre for visitors for the first time giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the marine mammal studies taking place there.
“It’s not an animal most people get to see, there’s so many things in the Arctic we want people to be aware of,” Neale said.
From roars to sputters, the aquarium said people will get a chance to hear the many sounds the walruses make as well as see them play with trainers.
Half-siblings Lakina and Balzak arrived at Aquarium du Quebec in May of 2016. The Quebec Aquarium contacted the Vancouver Aquarium about taking the animals in after they started becoming more independent and weening away from their mothers, Neale said.
“They need really specialized care and really specialized training and it’s something we’ve been doing here for many years with other pinnipeds — sea lions and our northern fur seals and our harbour seals — and so now we’re moving a lot of what we are doing and we’ve been learning with those animals so now we are bale to do that with the walruses,” he said.
Click here for more information about the public’s access to Lakina and Balzak.
~ With files from Linda Aylesworth