Pete McMartin: The Vancouver Aquarium: Thar she blows! Up!

Mayor’s view to free the whales is creating a splash

By Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun columnist April 9, 2014
Pete McMartin: The Vancouver Aquarium: Thar she blows! Up!

File photo of Aurora the female beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Photograph by: Les Bazso , PNG

The Big Fish in our small pond wrote us an email Wednesday.

Asked for his opinion, Mayor Gregor Robertson waded in on the subject of whales.

Of the Vancouver Aquarium’s planned $100 million-plus expansion, which will likely include an enlarged whale pool to accommodate more captive belugas, Robertson wrote:

“The Vancouver Aquarium is renowned worldwide for its work on conservation and state-of-the-art ocean research, and its team plays a crucial role in educating the public about the importance of protecting our vibrant local waters and marine environment. It is a huge draw for local residents and tourists alike, and one of the highlights of Stanley Park.”


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

Would he allow the public to have its say on the issue, as in a referendum or plebiscite included in the November civic election?


“I’m hopeful that the Aquarium and the Park Board can work collaboratively and come to an agreement on how to achieve this with a dialogue and review that will be informed, thoughtful and inclusive. I do not however support a city-wide referendum on the issue, as the ability to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity is within the Park Board’s authority.”

Still, the mayor’s message was clear: Times change. The scientific pretence for keeping whales in captivity no longer holds water. Whales should be free, not profit centres.

And, well, hear hear.

Forty years after Greenpeace sailed out of Vancouver to save the whales in the North Pacific, it’s time to phase out whaling here, even in the name of science.

It’s a sentiment growing among the public, too, if the 11,000-name petition calling for a referendum on the issue and the mounting number of letters to the Vancouver park board are an indication.

“There is an increasing amount of letters from the public,” said park board commissioner Sarah Blyth, “which tells me there is an increasing interest in this. We need to talk to (the administration of) the aquarium about the messages we’re getting from the public.”

The aquarium’s administration got the message all right, including the mayor’s. It just didn’t like what it was hearing. Soon after Robertson sent out his email, the aquarium, through its media relations people, replied in kind:

“It is unfortunate we were unable to connect with the Mayor of Vancouver prior to his issuing his statement. We appreciate the fact that he is very supportive of the Aquarium, and we recognize he has personal feelings, but believe he might not understand the vital role belugas and dolphins play in our important conservation efforts.”

I could be wrong, but stating publicly that the mayor “might not understand” what he’s talking about may not be the brightest of political moves. Nonetheless, the aquarium’s email endeavoured to bring the mayor up to speed. It continued:

“Dolphins and belugas at Vancouver Aquarium play a direct and vital role in engaging people in key ocean issues. In addition, with the rapid environmental changes in the arctic where belugas live, continued research, much of which must be done in marine science centres like the Vancouver Aquarium, is critical to their future.”

At least three of the park board commissioners weren’t buying that message anymore: Blyth, Niki Sharma and vice-chair Constance Barnes have all expressed their opposition to cetacean captivity recently.

And following the aquarium’s email, Vision Vancouver park board chair Aaron Jasper issued his own, announcing the board will ask staff at the next board meeting to report on the issue of whale captivity, best practices and, most critically, “an overview of current agreements between the Vancouver park board and the Vancouver Aquarium.”

“Before taking any action,” Jasper added, “let’s get all the information together in one place, in public, and work with the Vancouver Aquarium on a collaborative strategy for going forward.”

Sure. Collaborative. Here’s hoping. The aquarium wants to begin its expansion in 2015. The review of the park board bylaw governing the operation of the aquarium comes up in 2015. Sometime between this collision there will be public hearings on whales in captivity, and a lot of politicking, given this is an election year.

Wonder what the whales would say, if given a choice.

Leave a Reply

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

Scroll to top