Wildlife

To free or not to free

Vancouver's aquarium is a battl round for a whale lovers' tiff

MARK LEIREN-YOUNG in Vancouver August 26 1996
Wildlife

To free or not to free

Vancouver's aquarium is a battl round for a whale lovers' tiff

MARK LEIREN-YOUNG in Vancouver August 26 1996

To free or not to free

Wildlife

Vancouver's aquarium is a battl round for a whale lovers' tiff

Off the coast of Squamish, B.C., this summer, a film crew is riding the Pacific waves and getting ready to free Willy yet again. In Free Willy 3, the problem-prone Orca is once more under threat, this time from evil whaling crews. Victimized whales are a guaranteed winner at the box office, although the number of Willy sequels is starting to stretch credibility about just how much trouble one poor whale can get into. But Hollywood’s moguls and accountants need not despair. Just 45 km down the coast, Vancouverites are arguing about the treatment of whales at the city’s popular aquarium. And the real-life story has a cast of heroes and villains and enough plot twists to see a screenwriter through the making of Free Willy 4.

In this confrontation, however, everybody believes that they’re the good guy. It’s hard to believe the battle over whales in the Vancouver Aquarium will actually be settled to anyone’s satisfaction without a water-logged Solomon offering to carve an Orea in half. Vancouver is ground zero in the battle between those who value the educational and scientific value of keeping the mammals in a tank, and those who want to, well, set them free. The city’s aquarium is an important local tourism fixture, bringing more than 900,000 visitors a year to its downtown Stanley Park locale—and the whales are a big draw. But Vancouver is also the birthplace of the world’s best-known whale advocates, Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Both sides, of course, claim they have the mammals best interest at heart.

It’s an old argument, but it returned to the news with a fury this month. The Vancouver Parks Board, which is the aquarium’s landlord, said it was considering a bylaw that could prohibit them from importing any more whales, dolphins or narwhals. It will also look at banning the aquarium from swapping whales with other facilities. Parks officials have asked the aquarium and other interested parties to submit proposals for a future after the last whale is gone—although no one is suggesting that the aquarium’s current complement of two killer whales, one dolphin and she belugas will have to leave. The public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 16, and each side is already fine-tuning its arguments.

“A huge waste of time and money,” is how the aquarium’s executive director, John Nightingale, characterizes the public showdown. “It will be D-Day,” counters Annelise Sorg, director of the Coalition for No Whales in Captivity. David Chesman, the parks board chairman, says he and other board members are simply trying to “mediate” the conflict (he is a labor lawyer by profession), although he is personally opposed to keeping whales in captivity. Chesman says he is “sick and tired” of the perennial whale debate, which he maintains takes up too much of the board’s time and energy. He hopes that forcing all sides

to put their proposals on paper once and for all will finally stop the battle between the aquarium’s fans and foes. Not likely. Interest in the issue is so high that the parks board is considering moving the discussion from city hall to a downtown convention facility to accommodate the number of people who may want to be heard.

The latest showdown was sparked when one of the aquarium’s killer whale calves died shortly after birth last year. This was the third time that the female Bjossa had become pregnant by her mate Finna— and the third time the offspring died. Aquarium officials insist that early deaths are not unusual even in the wild. But many

Vancouverites were distressed by the repeated news of young whales dying in captivity. In order to prevent further breeding, the aquarium decided to exchange Finna for another whale to share the four-million-litre tank with Bjossa.

But last November, aquarium officials announced they had been unable to find a new companion for Bjossa. To keep Finna and Bjossa apart, Nightingale and his staff mused about expanding the size of the killer whale pool. The parks board balked at that, and insisted there would be no expansion without a public vote. With that, another whale war was under way.

The aquarium announced it would stop

capturing whales for display purposes five years ago. But Nightingale doesn’t want to be prevented from exchanging whales with other marine institutions. He is currently trying to find a new home for the father of Qila, the aquarium’s year-old female beluga and the only surviving whale born at the Vancouver Aquarium, to ensure the two don’t mate. “We’re saying to the politicians, ‘Don’t tie our hands behind our back,’ ” said Nightingale, who was vacationing in Alberta last week but made sure to return calls on the issue. “Decisions about what’s best for the individual animal must be made by the experts who take care of them and have responsibility for

them, not by politicians on a basis that has nothing to do with animal care.”

But Sorg is a formidable campaigner. She was part of the Vancouver Humane Society’s successful lobby to phase out the Stanley Park zoo—which Vancouver voters agreed to close in a 1993 referendum. All that now remains of the aquarium’s former neighbor in the park are a handful of penguins slated to be relocated by the end of the year, and a single elderly polar bear named Tuk. Although her group, No Whales in Captivity, has a mere 1,000 people on its mailing list, Sorg has the backing of the Vancouver Humane Society. And her beliefs are matched by a touch for sound-

bite politics. “Keeping highly intelligent mammals in captivity for profit is like the slave trade,” she asserts. And Sorg wants to see a tough bylaw that will ensure that no more whales or dolphins end up in Stanley Park pools—that means no “loopholes you can swim whales through. No more whales, no matter what,” she says.

Nightingale rejects Sorg’s absolutism. “The activists have a lot of emotion but no real knowledge,” he contends. “They don’t take care of whales, they don’t raise money. All they do is carry signs around.” And he defends putting whales on public display. “I just don’t think you can have a good aquarium—much less a world-class aquarium—but particularly an aquarium that’s educationally effective, without the entire spectrum of the aquatic world to show people. Particularly, for the kids.”

But not all youngsters are so sure that’s what’s best for whales. Willy has done for Orcas what Bambi did for deer and Babe for pigs: given them human desires for peace, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Vancouver radio open-line host Jon McComb used to be a fan of the whales at the aquarium but found himself reassessing his beliefs when his daughter, Quinn, now 14, said she felt whales should be left in the ocean. “Even as a little kid she didn’t think they should be in captivity and that kind of changed my thinking about it,” says McComb. “And she was a convert well before Free Willy.”

The general public is probably more confused than divided on what’s best for the whales. A McIntyre & Mustel poll taken less than two week’s after the killer whale calf’s death in March, 1995, showed 63 per cent of the 321 respondents were opposed to keeping whales in captivity. But only 23 per cent said that the whales should be freed. More than one-third felt the whales should not only remain at the aquarium but be allowed to breed. “It’s definitely a hot-button issue,” says McComb about the West Coast love affair with whales. “It certainly gets the lines going.” McComb got a taste of the potency of the debate this month when the lines lit up after his on-air editorial urging a “gradual phase-out of marine mammal exhibits.” But there are also voices of moderation from unlikely quarters. Paul Watson, the quintessential West Coast eco-warrior and founder of the Sea Shepherd Society, says although he is vehemently opposed to capturing whales on the open sea and towing them into aquariums for show, he sees no reason why the Vancouver Aquarium should be prevented from swapping for whales already in captivity. “I think that if a whale is coming from another facility to the Vancouver Aquarium, they’re probably going to be better off,” he says. “There are very few facilities in the world that are up to the calibre of the Vancouver Aquarium.” In other words, free Willy—if possible.

MARK LEIREN-YOUNG in Vancouver