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Whales In Aquariums

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about whales in aquariums. The answers come from our marine mammal experts and from other reputable sources in this area. If you have a question about whales in aquariums that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

Whales In Aquariums

Questions & Answers

Why have whales in aquariums?

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.

What impact does this have on research?

Aquarium research, in combination with information and data from studies conducted in the wild, has improved scientists’ understanding of whale biology, ecology, and the impacts of growing human populations and their activities.

Research can save whales in the wild. Aquarium-based killer whale reproductive studies have saved the lives of wild killer whales. After hormone measurements from pregnant aquarium whales revealed a much longer gestation period than had been previously estimated from field observations, the International Whaling Commission reduced Norway’s whale quota by 52 animals per year. This data is impossible to collect in the wild.

Can breeding programs save endangered species in the wild?

Breeding in captive or semi-captive settings has been identified by international conservation organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as perhaps the only hope for a number of critically endangered dolphins and porpoises. Animal care skills acquired in aquariums with non-endangered species are critical to the success of this program.

How do you transfer this knowledge to marine mammals in the wild?

Knowledge gained by caring for whales in aquariums is used to assist stranded animals and wild populations. We have been able to use ultrasound on pregnant belugas to learn more about and follow their reproductive patterns. We have also studied the respiration of whales and learned their normal respiration rates. Normal blood values of healthy whales have been observed which could help in the care of sick and stranded animals. Milk content has been studied and artificial milk formulas have been developed which could help an orphaned calf. Nutritional studies have also been conducted and diets have been developed to maintain healthy animals. From studying whales in aquariums, transport methods have been established which allows for the movement of sick and stranded whales to rehabilitation centres for care and then for release. Research in captive situations is allowing the development of tracking devices that will aid in the study of the movement of whales in the wild. In 2002, much of this research aided in the return of A73 (Springer), a "lost" killer whale calf, to her birth pod with the northern residents. Springer successfully reintegrated with her pod, and in 2013 she had her first calf; a proof point that we have been successful. 

What is the status of whales at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre?

After considerable public dialogue, the Vancouver Aquarium and its landlord, the Vancouver Parks Board, agreed that the Aquarium will not capture, nor bring any whales captured after September 1996, into the Aquarium. The Aquarium can exchange its whales for others captured before that date, or for whales born in captivity, as required to maintain excellence in animal management.

What concerns are associated with releasing aquarium killer whales into the wild?

Released killer whales must have demonstrated the ability to feed themselves. Killer whales are specialist feeders and range over large areas in search of prey. As a young whale grows up in a pod, it learns the often sophisticated techniques necessary to exploit prey. It also learns the pod’s seasonal movement patterns, which are tied to the migrations of prey. A whale removed from its pod as a juvenile would not have had the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to survive in this manner.

Killer whales are social animals. A released whale must be able to fit into the social structure already in place in the wild. Resident killer whales live in highly stable pods that are closed to newcomers and the hierarchy within a pod is likely based on age and relationships. It is highly unlikely that a pod following an absence of more than a few years would accept a whale.
A released killer whale may transfer disease to the wild. The death of large numbers of European harbour seals in 1986, resulting from a virus similar that of the canine distemper virus, is a dramatic example of the kind of impact that could result from the release to the wild of captive animals carrying an undetected virus.

The sudden exposure of an aquarium killer whale to parasite infestation and viruses that it has had little exposure to could affect its survival. Furthermore, a released killer whale may not have the physical conditioning necessary to survive the rigors of life in the wild. They may also pose a danger to humans as it has learned to associate with humans in many novel ways. When it is released from an Aquarium, it will take these learned behaviours with it.

 

References

  1. Obee, Bruce. 1992. The Great Killer Whale Debate. Canadian Geographic, Vol.112, N.1, pp. 20-31. 
  2. Personal communication. Marine Mammal Staff. Vancouver Aquarium.

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.

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