The Case of Chester
In July of 2014, a False Killer Whale calf dubbed “Chester” was found stranded on Chesterman Beach near Tofino in British Columbia. The young male was so young his teeth had not yet erupted, a clear sign that he was extremely young and still nursing. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre responded immediately, taking the calf to its facility, igniting a discussion that continues six months later.
False Killer Whales are considered tropical or temperate water animals, but the El Nino conditions of 2014 brought warmer waters to the west coast of North America and with it multiple sightings. In April of that year, Southern California saw a pod of no fewer than twenty passing very close to shore. It is unknown to which pod Chester belonged, but it is certain that it will be a very long time before that pod ever visits Canada again. Intensive care seemed to be the appropriate course for saving this animal’s life. While Chester’s rescuers, the Vancouver Aquarium, had the most experience with cetacean veterinary care, it has also come under scrutiny for their keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Cetacean species currently housed at the Aquarium also include Beluga Whales, Pacific White Sided Dolphins, and Harbor Porpoises.
The Rescuer’s Background
The Vancouver Aquarium has had a record for success with cetacean releases into the wild. A73 “Springer” was rescued, released, and reunited with her pod of Northern Resident Killer Whales, even having a calf 11 years later. A Harbor Porpoise called “Levi” was also able to be rehabbed and released after being stranded in March of 2013.
Not all rescues have been released however. Two other Harbor Porpoises were both taken in after they had been stranded, a male, “Jack”, in 2011 and a female, “Daisy”, in 2008. Deemed unfit for release, they are now the only two Harbor Porpoise kept in captivity in North America. The Aquarium also keeps a pair of Pacific White Sided Dolphins that were found in separate incidents entangled in fishing gear in Japan. One of these dolphins was injured so greatly that a portion of the pectoral fin had to be amputated. On its website, the Aquarium states that they acquired the animals without payment from a Japanese Aquarium, and that these were not part of the drive fisheries of Taiji. It is worth noting that Vancouver Aquarium publicly condemns the Taiji drive hunts.
So what is the problem many people have with Vancouver Aquarium? Why is there so much concern for Chester? If the Aquarium isn't deliberately collecting wild cetaceans, releasing cetaceans when possible, housing only non-releasable animals, and calling for an end to drive hunts, why is there so much concern? One answer to that lies in the Beluga Whale program, and the Aquariums previously stated plans to continue breeding these animals.
In 2014, just weeks prior to Chester’s arrival, the supervisors of Stanley Park (where the Aquarium is located) had begun discussing the appropriateness of the Aquarium’s plan to keep and breed Beluga Whales as part of its collection. Buoyed by an increase in support against cetacean captivity by “Blackfish” and the decline in public acceptance of marine parks such as Sea World, the Vancouver Aquarium found itself on the defensive.
The Vancouver Aquarium, well regarded for its scientific achievements and marine mammal rescue, has come under heavy fire for its connection to Sea World. The Aquarium currently has arrangements with Sea World for the housing and breeding of Belugas. Unlike the nonprofit Aquarium, Sea World is a publically traded corporation and directly tied to attempts to import wild-caught cetaceans for captivity. One such attempt involved eighteen wild-caught Belugas in Russia who were on sale to the highest bidder, and using a third party to circumvent a ban on importing marine mammals.
Since the time Chester was found, the Park Board for Stanley Park has since ruled that the Aquarium can continue to house cetaceans, but can no longer do any breeding at the facility in Vancouver. This limited ban was not encouraging to activists, who were quick to note that this does not prevent them from allowing their loaned animals at other facilities to participate in programs. Aquarium officials insist that a breeding ban isn't feasible because the animals housed together can choose on their own when to mate.
Fearing that Chester will one day go to Sea World under a similar arrangement isn’t the only issue that activists raise, there is also a moral concern for the keeping of cetaceans in captivity, and the previously mentioned Beluga Whales are no stranger to the debate. Captive raised Belugas are alleged to disengage in what would be normal behaviors for them in the wild, including communication and travel.
One argument that pro-captivity advocates support is the concept of an “animal ambassador” that allows regular people the chance to connect with a species in real time. They are routinely met with criticism that it is not worth doing so if the captivity is inhumane. Another argument is that captive breeding creates an insurance population in case these animals begin to dramatically decline in the wild and become extinct. The number of Belugas breeding in captivity however does not appear to support a genetically viable population. Captive born Belugas will never learn the survival skills needed for them to survive in the wild and there is no program in existence designed to remedy that, so it does not appear at this time that the “insurance population” would ever contribute to dwindling wild stocks.
Where Will Chester Call Home?
Will the Vancouver Aquarium continue to try and house Chester indefinitely and conduct research? Will he be moved to somewhere like Sea World? Will he ever one day swim in the ocean again?
Chester never learned the survival skills from his mother that wild False Killer Whales would be learning at his age, and he is missing out on social interaction with others of his kind. The other big barrier to Chester’s return to the wild would be the nomadic nature of False Killer Whales. It is possible that it could be many years before his species is ever seen again in Canada, and the identity of his particular pod remains a mystery.
For now he still has a lot of growing to do. After many days of tube feeding and assisted swimming Chester finally learned to suckle fish formula from a bottle and has since been moved into larger pools as he increases in size. A male False Killer Whale can reach lengths of 20 feet and weigh over 1500 lbs. The enclosure he will one day need may be bigger than what the Aquarium can offer, and it can only be speculated what will happen after that point.
A Harder Target and a Personal Take
Unlike Sea World, the Vancouver Aquarium boasts scientific credibility for research it has performed and does not answer to shareholders and business plans. It has also done more to distance itself from the darker side of cetacean captivity and publicly denounces the inhumane treatment of dolphins kept in drive fisheries, keeping only cetaceans that are not candidates to release back into the wild. They still toe the line though when it comes to their defense of cetacean captivity. The following statement is from the Vancouver Aquarium web site:
“Seeing whales in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for seeing animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and connection. For most people, the Vancouver Aquarium and other aquariums are the only place they can see live whales. Education about conservation is vital to the survival of whales in the wild. If all the people that view whales in aquariums went whale watching, this would have a huge impact on various wild whale populations around the world.”
For the sake of full disclosure I work in the whale watching industry, and I also acknowledge that during the research I have done for this article that the Vancouver Aquarium deserves more credit for marine mammal rescue than I had previously given them, but there are some problems with their statement.
To start with, there are plenty of places where Whale Watching can occur from shore, for free, and surely an increase in shore based whale watching would not have the suggested impact. This includes the Beluga Whales where they live up in Alaska. Any increase in commercial whale watching via boat that had an impact on the animals would invite further regulations in order to maintain guidelines designed to protect those animals, so to suggest no safeguard exists is disingenuous. Furthermore, whale watching via boat is now priced similarly to that of the cost of many aquariums and marine parks. With a minimum of planning, a family from the rural or landlocked parts of the US and Canada can go whale watching as easily as they can go to an aquarium.
Also, there are many aquariums with high attendances that do not display cetaceans that still manage to get their message of conservation across just fine. Notable aquariums in this vein include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Seattle Aquarium, Steinhart Aquarium (San Francisco), and the Birch Aquarium (San Diego).
On their website, the Vancouver Aquarium acknowledges the differences between Transient and Resident Orcas in the Pacific Northwest, and recognizes that the Resident Orcas are an incredibly endangered species. But given these facts their dealings with Sea World appear to be massively hypocritical.
The Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre should be commended for the hard work and success they have had with rescues and releases, but the Aquarium itself needs to do far more to draw distinctions between itself and parks like Sea World if they ever want their cetacean captivity to have even modest credibility in a time of evolving sensibilities towards these beautiful animals.
I, for one, can only hope that whatever happens in Chester’s future, that whatever we can learn from him will be valuable towards protecting his species. I can think of no other way to soften the blow that he will likely never see his family again in the wild ocean. Should he have to live out his days in captivity, I hope he can do so with some measure of respect and dignity, in a sufficiently large enough space, with no forced performances of little to no educational value, no forced travel in an airplane for hours on end, and with the possibility of a miracle that he could one day go back to sea.