A beluga whale

A beluga whale

Vancouver Aquarium to study belugas in the wild

Amid captivity debate, Vancouver Aquarium research goes wild way, way North

  • Jun. 25, 2014 5:00 a.m.

By Dene Moore, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – As debate swirls around keeping whales in captivity, the Vancouver Aquarium is taking its beluga research back to the wild with a study to begin next week in the Arctic.

Behavioural ecologist Valeria Vergara is going to Cunningham Inlet, on Summerset Island about 800 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, to listen in on the notoriously chatty cetaceans as they teach their calves to communicate.

“Belugas are incredibly vocal. They make hundreds of different sounds,” she said.

“Calves essentially … need to learn to speak beluga just like human babies need to learn to speak human language. They’re not born knowing their incredibly wide repertoire of sounds.”

For 12 years she has studied the mammals at the facility in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, documenting the whales’ social behaviours and communications.

Since the birth of Tuvoq, in 2002, aquarium staff have studied specifically the communication between cows and their calves.

Now Vergara is taking that research to the whales summer homes in the north.

Those homes are changing rapidly because of global climate change, said aquarium president John Nightingale.

Studies show the region is warming at twice the global average and the Northern Passage could be passable by ship in summer in as little as a decade, he said.

As the region has warmed, whale migration patterns have changed. The climate is altering their food sources and the species — and pathogens — around them.

Air-borne contaminants are being concentrated in the North and, as shipping traffic increases, so will marine noise pollution, Nightingale said.

“For beluga whales this changing environment could prove catastrophic,” he said.

The Vancouver Aquarium stopped acquiring cetaceans from the wild in 1996 but they do house rescued animals that cannot be returned to the ocean or animals that were born in captivity. The facility has two beluga whales, two porpoises and two dolphins.

Controversy re-emerged with the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” about the 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, killed by an orca. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson fanned the flames of that debate last spring.

“My personal view is that the Vancouver Aquarium should begin to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity,” Robertson said in a statement.

The mayor did not, however, endorse a citywide referendum. The park board is expecting a report from staff next month on the issue.

Board Commissioner Aaron Jasper said the board is not considering any specific action but wants a report based on facts.

“People have strong passions about this on either side of the issue,” Jasper said Wednesday. “Let’s take a deep breath and all of us, in a respectful way, let’s work through this.”

For Nightingale and the aquarium, the stakes are high.

“Depending on what they do, if they say ‘Okay aquarium, you have to get rid of cetaceans,’ it would dramatically reduce this institution’s ability to contribute to conservation on Arctic issues,” he said.

“The discussions that happen in front of the viewing window with the public, or with visiting scientists, or with policy makers, it’s a different kind of discussion when you’re standing right there looking at it, talking not about the whales here in the aquarium but the thousands of them that are living out in the wild and whose lives are being really impacted,” Nightingale said.

Just Posted

A Grade 8 class at L.A. Matheson Secondary. March 2021. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
B.C.’s return-to-school plan good, but Surrey teachers hope there is room for adjustments

Surrey school district to receive $1.76M of the $25.6M provincial pandemic-related funding

Surrey Fire Service battled a dock fire along the Fraser River late Friday night (June 18). It was on Musqueam Drive, near Industrial Road, around 10:45 p.m. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Fire engulfs pier on Surrey side of the Fraser River

Pier has reportedly been unused for a long time

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Most Read