Will the Aquarium’s Newest Resident Live a Long and Full Life?

As you probably heard, a beluga whale (cue Raffi) was born in the Vancouver Aquarium today:

The calf’s tail poked out at 12:40 p.m., which started a series of contractions until the baby arrived at 3:39 p.m. in a cloud of blood.

“This birth was really textbook. You couldn’t really hope for a better birth,” said Vancouver Aquarium senior vice-president of operations Clint Wright. “[Aurora] looked to be extremely relaxed throughout the whole thing.”

Later, the piece discusses the odds on the baby’s survival:

Aurora’s calf appears to be healthy, but with the mortality rate for beluga calves estimated at 40 to 50 per cent, staff will be watching it closely. Aurora’s only son, Tuvaq, died just before his third birthday in 2005. Her other calf, Qila, gave birth to Aurora’s first granddaughter, Tiqa, last June.

When I read about Qila’s birth on Rebecca’s blog, I wondered about the survival rate for whale births in captivity. I did a little research, and found this list of 33 whale deaths at the Vancouver Aquarium over the past forty-five years. I also found this dodgy site which claimed that “Six out of seven baby whales and dolphins have died at the aquarium, but even the grisly spectacle of a dead baby whale is a huge draw for visitors.”

I contacted the PR department at the Vancouver Aquarium about that second statistic. Despite my repeated efforts to get an answer, they neither confirmed nor denied that figure.

They did provide me with some well-supported evidence that a beluga’s life expectancy in captivity is similar (or better) than that in the wild. I don’t think we should keep large, intelligent mammals in captivity though, so I’m not sure it’s a life worth living.

As an adult, I’ve always been conflicted about the Vancouver Aquarium. On the one hand, I admire their scientific research and educational endeavours. On the other, I find the whales’ continued presence despicable. It’s for this latter reason that, when were planning an event for this fall, we chose not to consider the Aquarium

In any case, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about the long term chances of any whale born in captivity.

6 comments

  1. Any cetacean in captivity is unsettling to me. The more we find out about them points to a richer intellectual and social life than we previously thought, yet the Vancouver Aquarium like many others undermines its own credibility by putting them on display and making them perform like clowns. Sad clowns.

    It’s too bad, as I really do like visiting the aquarium to see the fish, but when I see the dolphins and whales, there’s a clear sense of something living a life far less than what it deserves.

  2. I would love to see some super high-tech-3D meets-omnimax “swim with the whales” experience at the aquarium in lieu of the actual animals. I think a near-experience of them in their natural habitat would go much farther in how much people appreciate not only their beauty but their normal behaviours and natural environment. There could be several different “experiences”.

  3. Have you ever been to (a) Sea World? When I went to San Diego’s in 1995 I was shocked at how exploited the animals seemed to be, in that they were all performers, made to jump and do tricks. It then reminded me that the Vancouver Aquarium used to be like that (remember the high platform where the trainer would stand and the big killer whale* would jump up to eat a fish or touch a pole or something?). I assume it changed here partially because of all the Greenpeace protesters chaining themselves to the building.

    I’m not going to argue that holding whales in captivity is a good thing, but at least Vancouver’s aquarium aims to educate rather than to entertain, which makes it far less evil in my mind.

    *we called them that back then

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