COVID-19 and Killer Whales

Didn’t we close the aquarium?

Kaileigh Bunting // Contributor
Allison Johnstone // Illustrator

What do a global pandemic and marine mammals have in common? In September of 2020, The Vancouver Aquarium announced its permanent closure following financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. This news came as a shock to some, but a celebration for many who have been protesting the ethics surrounding the tourist attraction for decades. In April of this year, however, The Vancouver Aquarium announced it had been saved from closure after being bought by a large American corporation.  

While I have always strongly opposed keeping wild animals in captivity, the sudden closure and unexpected reopening of the aquarium has sparked a much-needed conversation on the ethical responsibilities of the aquarium, and whether or not its current mission in marine research and rescue is enough to warrant its re-opening.

Since its debut in 1956, the Vancouver Aquarium has housed thousands of species of marine life, including highly controversial mammals such as orca whales (1964-2001) and beluga whales (1967-2016). It is clear to me that this early kind of entrapment of wild animals was not ethical, even if important research was being done, as it was the result of violently capturing these animals for the initial purpose of putting them on display. For the aquarium’s first orca whale, this looked like harpooning a young whale off the shore of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and towing the mammal back to captivity – harpoon still in place. The whale was on display for 24 hours and died 88 days later due to numerous factors surrounding the capture. This paints a horrific picture of the Vancouver Aquarium and does not lend support to the continued operation of the organization. 

However, I think it is important to understand the nuances that perhaps make today’s Vancouver Aquarium more acceptable and even beneficial as a marine animal rehabilitator center. In 2017, the Vancouver Aquarium followed the new legislative ban that prohibits the captivity of cetaceans such as whales and dolphins, and now only houses one dolphin who is waiting for transfer to an international cetacean sanctuary. Furthermore, the Vancouver Aquarium is seen by many as an important educational resource that focuses attention on wildlife and environmental conservation. Currently, this research wouldn’t be possible without the funds gained through tourism. 

While I do not fully agree that education is a good enough reason to keep wild animals in tiny tanks, I sympathize with the aquarium and its fight to remain open. As a child, the aquarium was a big influence on my love of marine life and animal welfare, which is a good message to be teaching the younger generation. Personally, I think the organization has come a long way from its darker beginnings and for now, promotes positive change as they refine their mission as a research and rescue facility. 

Regardless if you believe the aquarium is an ethical organization or not, the fact remains that as a human race, we have done so much harm to the environment of these animals and must focus on doing better. In a perfect world, I’d like to see a facility solely dedicated to marine research and rescue, with no focus on being a public attraction. That would ensure the best interests of the animals are met without the worry of financial profit hanging above their necks. For now, the re-opening remains to generate conversation surrounding the ethics of animal conservation, which is most certainly a step in the right direction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *