Mind over Matter or Miss Out on Life

There is a big difference between using illness as an explanation, and using it as an excuse. I’d like to illustrate this by using my recent diagnoses of Anemia and Exercise-Induced Asthma.

Many have interpreted the asthma diagnosis as “you shouldn’t exert yourself!” but at no point have I turned down an outing despite anticipating shortness of breath, pain in my lungs, intense coughing/retching, and occasional injury as I stumbled due lacking the red blood cells necessary to transport oxygen even if I could breathe it in. If anything, the judgmental people who assumed I needed to exercise and lay off the cigarettes (I don’t smoke) were arguably worse than the symptoms themselves.  Although to be fair, I hoped I merely needed to exercise more, too.

Huon Valley, Tasmania, Australia. Licensing available on Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

Instead I’d pack up my gear and rush out the door with as much anticipation for the adventure ahead as I would if I didn’t end up suffering.  I am a nature photographer, and running around outdoors with a heavy backpack is a prerequisite.  Although my pace was often affected, and I learned the hard way to turn down hiking-based tours and group outings with strangers, my overall determination was not.

It took 3 hikes to get both usable light AND the falls flowing nicely.  Morialta Conservation Park, South Australia. Licensing available on Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

Many hikes have been unintentional.  An stroll at ground level saw me follow a sign stating “Challenge yourself! Get there faster” up a terrifying-looking trail. Ill-prepared, gasping for breath, and unable to plod more than a few paces at a time, I wondered where I was trying to go in the first place… and nearly turned around.  Doing so would have been a mistake, as the trail led me straight to a bird that had eluded my camera for 2 years. On an easier trail I would have missed it entirely.

A Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo takes flight off a high cliff in Morialta Conservation Park, South Australia. Licensing available on Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

I am not discounting the constraints that mental and physical illness oftentimes inflict, but at some point mind over matter needs to factor in. A slow climb up that hill is better than no climb at all. It’s a big world, and you won’t experience it sitting on your ass.

Grampians National Park, Victoria, Australia.

 

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Dog Owners: Yes, The Rules Do Apply To You

Just as most people are aware of the damage feral cats wreak on the environment but are silent about the damage feral dogs do, people are far quicker to view the friendly neighbourhood kittycat as the harbinger of death than they are slobbery Fido. But while outdoor pet cats tend to stick to their immediate vicinity, domestic dogs are being actively brought into parks and nature reserves and oftentimes let off-leash…whether permitted or not.

You might not like it, but the rules are there for a reason.

As much fun as your dog may be having, signs stating they’re not allowed to be off-leash (and possibly not in the park at all) are there for a reason.  Although it may seem as though the dog is “just playing”, dogs are still predators, and wildlife perceives them as such.  Many breeds were, after all, created for the purpose of assisting with hunting. They are doing far more damage than their owners often acknowledge, from disrupting ground-nesting birds, or killing juvenile birds and animals who lack the skills necessary to escape, to chasing animals away from their food sources.

Dog attacks are responsible for a significant number of animals being sent to wildlife rescue centres – one Australian study showed that although cars were overwhelmingly #1, dogs – not cats – were #2.  Black Flying Fox Master Jaffar, below, is one such victim: his mother died after an off-leash dog killed her, and he sustained several bites to his head and required a tear along his cheek to be sewn up. Still think your dog is “just playing”?

Master Jaffar after entering human care.  Image credit: Batzilla the Bat

Note the injury on Master Jaffar’s head, along with the stitching across his cheek. Image credit: Batzilla the Bat

Even if the dogs aren’t running amok, their presence is enough to cause damage, which is the reason they are banned in some areas. The following study states that:

“The presence of dogs causes most wildlife to move away from an area, which temporarily or permanently reduces the amount of functionally available habitat to wildlife. The research is clear that people with dogs disturb wildlife more than humans alone,” and that “two hikers disturbed an area of 3.7 hectares walking near wild sheep, whereas two hikers with dogs disturbed 7.5 hectares around the sheep. In Chicago, migratory songbirds were less abundant in yards with dogs. Dog walking in Australian woodlands led to a 35% reduction in bird diversity and a 41% reduction in the overall number of birds. The same study showed some disturbance of birds by humans, but typically less than half that induced by dogs.”

Further, “chronic stress such as repeated disturbances over time may reduce wildlife health, reproduction, growth, impair the immune system and increase vulnerability to parasites and diseases.  Dogs cause wildlife to be more alert, which reduces feeding, sleeping, grooming and breeding activities and wastes vital energy stores that may mean life or death when resources are low, such as during winter or reproduction.

It is often said that you can’t claim to love birds if you allow your cat to go outdoors.  It could thus be argued that you can’t claim to love nature if you allow your dog off-leash or bring your dog into areas you aren’t allowed to.  For the sake of the other species we share this world with, if you must let your dog off-leash, stick to dedicated dog parks and please obey the rules elsewhere.

And to the responsible dog owners who do obey the rules: thank you.

Further reading: You’re Worried About The Wrong Animal Attack

Donate to Batzilla the Bat and help fund the rescue and rehabilitation of more animal like Master Jaffa via Paypal (batzillathebat@gmail.com)

 

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Facility Spotlight: Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium (Japan)

I originally visited Port of Nagoya Aquarium in February 2017, and wrote this review shortly after although did not post it.  Since then the orcas now use the huge show pool!

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Humans learn best when they are entertained, and if one speaks Japanese, Port of Nagoya Aquarium would certainly be a perfect fusion of entertainment and education, as this seemingly small aquarium felt like a living science centre. And if you don’t speak Japanese (like me), it is still worth trip as there is plenty to see and do.
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Port of Nagoya Aquarium’s North Building’s theme is “A journey spanning 3.5 billion years: Animals that have returned to the seas.” Alongside a rather large collection of bones and fossils detailing cetacean evolution are their living descendants, including orcas, belugas, bottlenose dolphins, and pacific white sided dolphins. That it is all in Japanese didn’t make it any less interesting – indeed, I spent most of my day watching the cetaceans play with toys, interact with their trainers, check out the guests, and more.

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Cetacean evolution displays, with the show pool’s underwater viewing in the background.

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While the orcas do not have their own show so to speak, the aquarium conducts scheduled public training sessions. The two I saw were vastly different from one another: one was low-energy and seemed to focus on basic behaviours and husbandry, while the other was more like what you’d expect an orca show to be (complete with background music), and featured more high-energy behaviours. Both provided an extensive commentary.

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Stella providing a voluntary urine sample

Earth, who was transferred from Kamogawa Sea World in late-2015, was interacting affectionately with his grandmother Stella and aunt Lynn. He and Lynn seemed particularly close, as she kept following him around and melon-bumping him. At Kamogawa he was often alone in the back pool.
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Lynn and Earth, BFFs

The beluga whale training session takes place in a building whimsically called “Under the Northern Lights” (although I was sad to see there were no simulated northern lights – the title evoked images of Chimelong Ocean Kingdom). The belugas seemed to have a very good relationship with their trainers, and appeared enthusiastic and responsive. There was even a trainer in what I presume was the med pool tossing a ball back and forth with the animals in there, as if it was to ensure they weren’t left out.

The dolphin show was high energy and fun, and featured both Bottlenose and Pacific White Sided Dolphins(!!!). Earlier in the day, they held a special presentation for visiting students which was heavy on narrative and laughs – the Pacific White Sided Dolphins in particular were crowd-pleasers with the children.

And the show pool itself? Spacious and deep. [Note: This is the one the orcas have started using since typing the review]

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The South Building’s theme is “A Journey to the Antarctic” and is meant to simulate a journey south from Japan. It includes marine life from Japan, equatorial regions, deep-sea regions, Australia, and of course Antarctica.

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Found them! 😉

A Sugar Glider from Australia

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Sea turtle breeding

“I woke up like this” #nofilter #nomakeup

Just don’t make the same mistake I did: make sure you enter what I believe was the “Japan’s Seas” area by way of a small, rather lackluster room that held only a few small fish tanks. I bypassed it for something more “exciting”, and inadvertently started exploring the exhibits from the wrong end, not realizing I had done so until I was about halfway through and became like a salmon swimming upstream.

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The aquarium also holds educational talks and feeding sessions throughout the day. One would need to speak Japanese to understand them, but judging by the crowd’s reactions, they were interesting.  Topics included breeding, feeding, ecology, and animal care.

A cheeky baby dolphin who was born at the aquarium flashes a researcher.

One thing that stood out at Port of Nagoya was how much time the trainers spend with the animals in their care. Outside of scheduled shows, trainers were often seen giving the animals check-ups, rub-downs, playing with them, or training them – basically, the focus on enrichment was high. At times the trainers merely stood back and observed, with the animals often seeking them out for attention of their own accord.

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“Play with me!”  Image licensing available here and here.

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Even the fish received ample enrichment! Image licensing available here and here

There also seemed to be a larger emphasis on tactile gestures as positive reinforcement than I have seen at other facilities.  The trainers were very hands-on, and the animals sure didn’t seem to be complaining.

It is notable how much closer the trainers could freely get to the animals, the images below. At SeaWorld parks in the US, for example, the trainers often put a small set of bars between them and the orcas during certain interactions (likely due to regulations).

A recommendation: If you have no reason to visit Nagoya for any reason other than to visit the aquarium, the Shinkansen from Tokyo is a time-efficient method of getting there, and it was an easy hop by subway to the aquarium itself.  Although it appears pricey, the expense worth every penny considering the hassle, cost, and lost time if one opts to check into a hotel instead.  However you choose to get there, a visit to this aquarium is definitely worth it.

But be warned: the gift shop is rather dangerous if you love Lynn, too 😉

 

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Animal Rescue, Daisy the Harbour Porpoise, and Saving the Vaquita In Her Name

Even before the sad news of 9-year old Daisy the Harbour Porpoise’s death, this couldn’t be stated enough: “Every animal matters.”

No, that isn’t the mantra of an animal rights group like PETA (who kill 97% of the animals taken into their “care”), but the oft-repeated sentiment of the Vancouver Aquarium and their supporters as the Park Board voted to ban all new cetaceans from entering the aquarium.

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Daisy (bottom) and Jack

This decision means that animals like porpoises Daisy and Jack, and false killer whale Chester, all of whom were found washed up on beaches at about 1 month of age, will now have to be “euthanised” on the spot instead of being taken to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and given a chance at life. The aquarium must be able to provide a long-term home to animals deemed non-releasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  As the only facility of its kind in Canada, that ability has been lost.

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Baby Daisy. Credit: Vancouver Aquarium

Clearly, these animals do NOT matter to the Park Board, who have been asked countless times if the “experts” they claimed to consult included the DFO. Their silence could seen as an answer in itself. A so-called humane society was among the many who praised the ban while implying it doesn’t matter because (paraphrasing collective statements from them and others) “not that many cetaceans are treated at the MMRC anyway”. But the number is irrelevant: these animals matter. All of them.

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This figure ignores attempted rescues and all other strandings. Only those who survive long enough to enter long-term treatment are “counted.”

Daisy was an ambassador to her species in every sense of the word. What her caregivers learned from her directly contributed to the successful re-release of Levi. And then there are those she inspired: she stole the hearts of myself and countless others, and we love with the often-overlooked porpoise family as a direct result of interacting with her. Some of us are now taking action to save the critically endangered vaquita as part of that newfound love. Even Daisy contributed to vaquita conservation efforts.

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The day I fell in love with porpoises

Returning animals like Daisy to the wild is always the goal, but it isn’t always possible.  For those who call facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium home, while their lives may be different to that of their wild counterparts, that does not make them any less meaningful. Their trainers and tankmates are their friends and family. They have toys, affection, better medical care than many humans receive, and they never go hungry.  They even participate in research that can improve the lives of their increasingly imperiled wild counterparts, and increase the likelihood of successful rehabilitations.

The people at the Vancouver Aquarium are the true activists, knowing all the animals who have a chance at life deserve that life…and working to make it happen. Every one that needs to be shot on the beach because of this shortsighted law is one too many. Please, as the Vancouver Aquarium fights the ban in court, continue to let the Park Board know you oppose their decision.

And then, please help save the vaquita. For those Daisy touched, fighting to save the vaquita in her name is perhaps one of the best ways we can honour her memory.  For without her we might not care in the first place.

Rest in peace, sweet Daisy.  May your memory live on through those you inspired.

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Further reading:
Porpoise Conservation Society

Euthanasia, Humane Killing, and the Vancouver Aquarium

 

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Euthanasia, Humane Killing, and the Vancouver Aquarium

Vancouver’s Park Board is looking to completely end the display of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium. That includes rescued and rehabilitated animals like harbour porpoise Daisy and false killer whale Chester.  Both were found beached and near death as infants, and were taken into care at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (which, incidentally, is the only one of its kind in Canada).  The government later deemed them non-releasable.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Chester leaping before a show

While animal rights activists celebrate, scientists warn bans like this could do more harm than good.   Among other things, if the Vancouver Aquarium is no longer able to provide a permanent home for cetaceans who are deemed non-releasable, “…the DFO would have to look at alternatives such as euthanasia,” according to Dr John Ford of the Department of Fisheries.

But is euthanasia the correct term?  In a research environment (where much of my training lies), the distinction between Euthanasia and something referred to as Humane Killing (or Culling) is roughly as follows: Euthanasia is undertaken for the animal’s benefit, usually to end explicit suffering.  Humane Killing is undertaken for our benefit and convenience, such as when an animal is no longer needed for breeding.  Both are conducted as fast and painlessly as possible — it is merely the motive that differs.

Helen dolphin

Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan, and was deemed non-releasable following a lengthy rehabilitation. Her pectoral fins had to be partially amputated.

But who benefits from stripping current animals of their home and leaving future ones to die? Politicians. In this case, the Vancouver Park Board.

As election time approached in 2014, Vision Vancouver-run Park Board Commissioner Constance Barnes infamously compared cetacean captivity to slavery before banning breeding.  Vision Vancouver lost the Park Board that election, and the Aquarium-supporting NPA immediately reversed Vision’s rulings, stating “I think it’s an emotional issue, and I think we recognize that the aquarium provides a lot of good in terms of research, conservation and education programs and we want to see that work continue.”  But election time is coming up again, and Commissioner Stuart Mackinnin used renewed outrage following the deaths of belugas Qila and Aurora to do a fast 180 and one-up scrapping the breeding program by moving to ban cetaceans entirely.  He even suggested he doesn’t care where the animals go so long as they’re off Park Board-controlled lands. Out of sight, out of mind…and into office.

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One has to wonder…

Activists claim the animals are suffering in captivity, but science says otherwise.  And there are tangible benefits to having cetaceans live in facilities such as the Vancouver Aquarium that directly benefit their wild counterparts.  Helen, for example, participates in research studies that could help prevent the approximately 1000 marine mammals from becoming entangled in fishing nets as bycatch every day.  Meanwhile, Daisy is helping save the critically endangered Vaquita. Not to mention, animals are given a chance at life who otherwise wouldn’t have one.  And if all cetaceans are “euthanised” on the spot to “save” the few who can’t be, success stories like Levi’s will be a thing of the past.  (see: This Dolphin Didn’t Have To Die)

The Vancouver Aquarium is asking people to send letters of support for the work they do.  And voice that support for them on social media, perhaps highlighting how they have inspired you.

To the politicians, this isn’t about the animals’ welfare.  It’s about notoriety and votes.  Don’t let them meddle in the lives of these animals purely for their own gain.  The future of cetacean conservation and rescue in Canada could depend on it.

Related:
Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired
Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On

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Anthropomorphism, And How Animal Rights Activists Are Born

While observing the critically endangered Sumatran Tigers at the Toronto Zoo (reviewed here), I heard about a half dozen visitors independently exclaim how “it’s sad that the tigers are by themselves” and how they must feel “lonely”.

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This is anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a something non-human. Or, as Josh Clark puts it:Anthropomorphizing is the point at which human curiosity meets human laziness…It’s a lot easier to explain a prancing goat as being ‘happy’ than it is to study the behavior further and determine that the dance is part of a mating ritual.” Basically, the speakers felt that they would be lonely if they lived by themselves, and so the tigers must surely be lonely too.

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The problem is, this is how zoo-hating animal rights activists are born: the uneducated acting on sudden emotion, and screaming “foul!” or “abuse!” as they assume the animals are not being properly cared for because they, personally, don’t like (or more accurately, don’t understand) what they see.

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The reality is that tigers are naturally territorial and solitary creatures, generally only coming together during the mating season. And even then, this can still lead to one animal mauling another. It is not uncommon for zoos to keep their tigers apart except for the purposes of mating (often as part of a species protection program), and even that isn’t always foolproof.

Animal behaviour is complex, and what works for one species doesn’t necessarily work for another.  Even individuals within a population may exhibit traits which may seem “abnormal”, but are in fact normal to that individual.  The average zoo visitor averages less than 1 minute at each exhibit, while the animals’ carers dedicate their lives towards the animals’ wellbeing.  The keys are education, observation, and more education (no, reading The Dodo doesn’t count).  If you have questions or concerns, the zookeepers (or other zoo staff or volunteers) will most likely be happy to answer them — after all, they arguably know the individual animals best.  To assume the worst could harm the animals themselves, and even set back conservation efforts.

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Tour Review: Solar Whisper (Daintree River, Queensland, Australia)

If visiting the world heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia, a riverboat tour is a must. With their solar-powered vessel, Solar Whisper offer the true eco-tour option. Even if not visiting the Daintree, their Facebook page is well worth a Like both for the amazing photography and to keep up to date on the “Days of the Daintree,” a tabloid-style narrative about the escapades of the river’s resident wildlife (particularly the crocodiles, many of whom are named after Royals).

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Up close and personal with Kate the crocodile

Having been on a Daintree river cruise with a different company 2 years ago, the absence of harsh engine noise was notable, and allowed one to actually hear the rainforest birdsong as we glided through the mangroves.

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I imagine the local wildlife prefers it as well, as we saw considerably more than on the other tour I went on, including 2 White-Lipped Treefrogs, a colony of threatened Spectacled Flying Foxes, several birds, and (despite being the low season for sightings) 2 crocodiles. None of the wildlife seemed perturbed by our presence.

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A sleepy White-Lipped Treefrog that just kept sleeping

David’s narrative was interesting, educational, and humorous all at once. It is obvious he is genuinely passionate about his work, and knowledgeable about the wildlife he is able to share with others through these tours.

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A “2016 model”, as David put it

Solar Whisper is notable in that they are bat-friendly, highlighting the importance of these threatened “lycra-clad teddy bears of the sky” (as their Facebook aptly describes them) to rainforest health, in a region that far too often demonises them.

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A python resting in a tree that also contained bats…

As a bonus, the man at the front desk, Martin, was extremely knowledgeable about Australia’s bird-life.  He provided some useful tips that helped me add a few new ones to my Life List.

All in all, Solar Whisper is a must-do.  Very highly recommended.

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Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired (Vancouver Aquarium)

November 26: 2016 Original blog post from 2 days ago has been amended to reflect updated events.

After the recent loss of Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium (who in some ways I watched grow up alongside my evolving view of belugas from “boring” to “beautiful”), shortly followed by the news that her mother Aurora passed from the same illness following heroic efforts to save her, I was reminded of a Skytrain ride conversation I overheard in which someone had clearly been inspired by these two animals.

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A very young Qila with her mother, Aurora

On this commute a small child was gushing to his grandfather about beluga whales. How cool they are, how their home is melting, how pollution makes them “poisonous” (toxic), how he’s going to write about belugas for school and tell his classmates, and how he wants to raise money to help them. His grandfather smiled and asked if he knew the Vancouver Aquarium had beluga whales. “YEAH!!! Auntie took me! That’s how I know this!” and on and on he went.  If he paused to take a breath, I would be surprised.

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Qila breaching. Photo available here, here, and here.

Qila and Aurora played a direct role in inspiring the child above. Although many people do visit zoos and aquariums to be entertained, connecting with these animal ambassadors provides a tactile experience that can touch both mind and heart in ways books and television often can’t.

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And for those who aren’t inspired, the money they spend on admission, food, and souvenirs still helps fund conservation and research projects, of which the Vancouver Aquarium has many.

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Up close with Aurora

So like Jack the Harbour Porpoise, may Qila and Aurora live on through those they touched and inspired, and the wild belugas whose lives may be saved as a result.  They will without doubt be dearly missed by their dedicated carers, and aquarium visitors as well.

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iPhoneographers: Get Real, Or Get A Real Camera

Over the past few weeks, increasing throngs of people have approached me to smugly state that DSLRs are obsolete, citing recent projections in the cellphone industry. Even before that, I long lost track of all the times I’ve heard “Oh you’re a photographer? Yeah I just bought the latest iPhone/iPad/whatever and it takes great shots!” or “If you knew how to take pictures, you wouldn’t need all that. See?” as the speaker pulls out their phone and activates camera-mode…

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Seriously guys, just stop. Even if the technology does get to where you think it will, it is far from being there now. And a cellphone will never be as good as a dedicated camera. You are insulting those who invest our valuable time (and however much money we can afford) into the art, and costing us by either ruining our shots, or refusing to buy our work because of the “my cellphone has a camera so if you can take that shot so can I” mentality.

I worked in an art gallery, and actually had an iPhoneographer compare a panorama composed of over 100 high-resolution photos to what his cellphone can do, saying “if that guy can sell his pics for that much, I am going to start selling mine!”  Even if you could theoretically take the same shot: did you?

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My camera+600mm lens were like a beacon to iPhoneographers, who were quick to crowd in and start snapping away even though their phones could not “see” the koalas.

Do us (and the wildlife) a favour and accept that you will never get the same close-up of an animal or bird as someone with either a telephoto lens or “superzoom” camera, so stop running up to whatever we’re photographing and inevitably scaring it off. The photographer has probably spent much longer than you can even conceive trying to get the perfect shot, only to have you ruin it for nothing.

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And stop piggybacking onto our work by crowding against us when you see our tripods set up, or purposely standing immediately in front of us to snap the same scene on your phone. I once had a woman repeatedly block me while photographing the sunrise on an otherwise empty beach, until I picked up my gear, marched straight into the ocean, and plopped it down. The look on her face was worth soaked shoes and pants.

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And this makes a much better print than the back of someone’s head.

“The best camera is the one you always carry around!” iPhoneographers smugly declare. This is true to a point – indeed, DSLRs are bulky and many photographers (myself included) have a more compact unit we carry around for emergencies — but if you can make phone calls with your camera, it isn’t a camera and you are not a photographer.

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You also look like an idiot.

 


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Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On. (Vancouver Aquarium)

Saddened by the news out of the Vancouver Aquarium that harbour porpoise Jack has passed away.

RIP Jack

Jack was found washed up on a beach in 2011, when he was about 5 weeks old. He was taken in to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for intensive care. Later deemed non-releasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (not by the aquarium itself, as is commonly believed in these cases), he was introduced to Daisy, another harbour porpoise who was found and saved under similar circumstances.

Together, these two animals became ambassadors for their species and reinforced in my mind the importance of zoos and aquariums. Although I have loved whales and dolphins since I was a child, porpoises never crossed my mind… until “meeting” Daisy for the first time. A new porpoise lover was created. And I’m not alone — I know countless people who came to love these animals only after watching the playful, interactive antics of Jack and Daisy at the aquarium.

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Harbour porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetacean, and yet little is known about them (if anything, you are likely to catch only a fleeting glimpse of one’s back-end as it swims away). What the aquarium learned from caring for Jack and Daisy helped in the re-release of another porpoise named Levi, and will also help future animals in need.

RIP Jack. You will be missed by many, but your legacy will live on through people you inspired.

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