What I learned at the Vancouver Aquarium
Story by Tricia Edgar
Vacay.ca Outdoors Columnist
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — As a child, I loved to swim underwater. Imagining myself as a fish, I became a synchronized swimmer instead, going lengths underwater while holding my breath. I vacationed next to the ocean and walked long distances out onto the Parksville beach, searching for sand dollars and the slippery, glass-like surfaces of moon snail nests. I played in tidal pools, looking for the coveted tiny pink seashells that were so delicate that they would often fracture in my hands.
But the surface of the ocean was still an impenetrable boundary, a blue-gray wall that my human lungs wouldn’t allow me to cross. I wanted to dive into it to see sea anemones as they opened their frilly, wavy plumes and to find the places where the seals liked to hide.
As a land-dweller, my point of contact with these animals was the Vancouver Aquarium. There, I could look underneath the water and see the dog-like faces of the seals, the waving plumose anemones, and watch the octopus as it tried to wedge itself through tiny cracks in a rock. In seventh grade, like many of the girls in my class, I determined that I was going to be a marine biologist.
I grew up, and my fascination with the natural world continued to blossom. In an attempt to explore the ocean, I tried scuba diving, only to find that claustrophobia and diving are not friendly bedfellows. Disappointed by my failure to be a successful underwater explorer, I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to work at the Vancouver Aquarium.
I entered into this job with delight, yet with concern. I loved animals, and I wanted to help restore their habitats and encourage others to do the same. Was working at a facility that housed animals and mammals in captivity the right thing to do?
Many would argue that the decision to house any creature in captivity is unkind no matter how many benefits there are to humans. That’s especially so if those creatures are whales. In Vancouver, the No Whales in Captivity group has made this point in its work to encourage politicians to phase out the aquarium’s program with orcas, belugas and dolphins. It’s been years since orcas have been held in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium but belugas and dolphins remain in the facility.
In April, activists urged the city’s councillors to hold a vote to ban the aquarium from keeping whales and dolphins but the politicians refused to call a referendum on the issue. The city’s park board will now review the law while the aquarium continues with an ongoing renovation that is estimated to cost $100 million.
Vancouver Aquarium’s Complexities and Benefits
While critics say the aquarium’s actions are cruel, I witnessed progress and passion during my time as an employee there. From the work researching Stellar sea lions to education programs for children, the aquarium, I discovered, was a natural hub for those who love marine environments. I worked with scores of dedicated volunteers, many of whom had endeavoured for years to educate the public, clean up ocean environments, and assist wildlife. Volunteers aspired to blend fish for the seals saved by the marine mammal rescue program. Rather than a chore, blending the fish was a task that showed how deeply we cared for these pinnipeds and was also an act essential to their rehabilitation.
I also realized that the aquarium was a centre for advocacy, with its Ocean Wise program to support restaurants and educate consumers about sustainable fishery practices and food choices.
Soon, I was carrying a Seafood Watch card in my wallet and using it to shape my buying choices. This program, initiated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (a Vancouver Aquarium partner), coaches consumers of seafood on sustainable harvesting practices.
During my time at the Vancouver Aquarium, I saw the enthusiasm of the staff stretch from marine invertebrates to large mammals, and so did its research, education, and action. Even today, many of its advocacy programs focus on species that aren’t particularly charismatic, like fishing education programs about the venerable and threatened rockfish.
Working at the aquarium made me think more deeply about our relationship with the animals that we call wild. I had the opportunity to get up close with an octopus and got a little too close to a rather large crab. I watched the plumose anemones sway in the light currents of water and realized that for me it was the beauty of these numerous and seemingly ordinary animals that drew me to the underwater world. The aquarium allowed a land-dweller like myself to become immersed in the world that these animals live in, and it helped me learn more about how to become a steward of the ocean.
And what of the whales? I realized that concerns about keeping cetaceans captive revolved around how best to be stewards and educators about these huge mammals. This debate begins in the history books.
Although the Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps orcas in captivity, people once thought the whales that are famously called killer were numerous and dangerous. To me, the public’s fascination and concern with keeping whales in captivity is crystallized in the 50-year-old story of Moby Doll, the second orca to be snatched from the wild. Moby Doll was never supposed to be captured alive. He was meant to be a specimen used to show off the dimensions of the killer whale. Instead, he survived and in 1964 was towed to Vancouver, where crowds came out to watch him. Sadly, Moby Doll (who was mistakenly identified as a female, hence his name) died within months, but his short life in captivity started a conversation about values that continues to this day.
Moby Doll awakened a naturalist’s interest in a species that people had previously hunted. Today, we can visually identify many of the coastal orcas. We know what they eat and we track their sounds. Most importantly, there is an abiding love for these creatures. On a recent trip, I met a man whose life dream was to see orca in the wild. Hundreds of such visitors trek to Canada’s west coast each year to witness orcas, or blackfish, sailing through — and sometimes leaping out of — the Pacific Ocean.
We have come far in understanding, yet not so very far. The oceans are in more peril than ever. We still feel the need to educate the public, and we need to learn much — and act on the knowledge — to help the world’s oceans. Many think that keeping animals in captivity allows them to act as emissaries from their species to ours, helping our species learn and learn again about the habits of other inhabitants on earth. Others disagree. In Vancouver today, the aquarium in Stanley Park remains a locus for discussion about humans’ relationship to the natural world and about the ethics that are involved in educating people about the life in the world’s oceans.
As always, aquariums are where we ponder the world and our place in it.
MORE ABOUT THE VANCOUVER AQUARIUM
Address: 845 Avison Way, Vancouver, BC (in Stanley Park; see map below)
Hours: 10 am-6 pm daily.
Tickets: $29 for adult admission; $20 for students (13-18); $15 for kids. Prices in effect until June 20, 2014. Check the aquarium’s website for more pricing info and details.