Facility Spotlight: Vancouver Aquarium

With a strong focus on research and conservation, the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, first opened its doors in 1956, and have become a progressive and excellent example of which other facilities should aspire to be (or be more like, as different facilities satisfy different niches and/or learning styles). For example, in 1996 they became the first facility to pledge to no longer collect marine mammals from the wild, and other facilities quickly followed.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

The Vancouver Aquarium was also the first facility to, effectively, display a killer whale. Although it was far from an ideal situation as the animal was harpooned for the purpose of being used to create a lifesize model, Moby Doll (as she came to be known) changed the way people viewed this highly misunderstood marine mammal, and we stopped using the species for target practice.

Bill Reid's "Chief of the Undersea World" greets aquarium visitors

Bill Reid’s “Chief of the Undersea World” greets aquarium visitors

Split into several different galleries, including Canada’s Arctic, the Tropic Zone (highlighting the Amazon), Penguin Point, and Treasures of the BC Coast (among others), the Vancouver Aquarium provides a glimpse of the natural world from around the globe.

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An African Penguin at Penguin Point

An African Penguin at Penguin Point

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Home to the only marine mammal rescue centre in Canada (Marineland, who are much closer to a threatened population of beluga whales in the St Lawrence, does not operate one), the Vancouver Aquarium rescues, rehabilitates, and often re-releases around 100 animals each year. Primarily seals, they have also saved otters, sea lions, harbour porpoises, a false killer whale, and even sea turtles who were found far from their preferred tropical climes.  Some of the animals were later deemed non-releaseable by the appropriate government authorities, and the aquarium was able to provide them with a permanent home.

Following her rehabilitation in the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, the Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The “Frogs Forever?” gallery, which spawned the famous ad and internet response below, highlights the global plight of the world’s amphibians, whose numbers are crashing due to pollution, habitat loss, and the spread of chytrid fungus.  Zoological facilities around the world are working to create a modern-day network of arks for the world’s imperiled amphibians, and the Vancouver Aquarium was the first to breed the Northern Leopard Frog.

Save The Frogs

"Unavailable Due To Extinction"

“Unavailable Due To Extinction”

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The aquarium is also home to some animals you wouldn’t expect to see in such a facility, such as macaws, sloths, marmosets, and fruit bats. This helps create a balanced impression of how everything is interconnected.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

Hurricane the sloth

Hurricane the sloth

The Vancouver Aquarium is home to the only two captive Harbour Porpoises in North America, both of whom were found washed up on beaches in poor condition at about 1 month old, and had a very low chance of survival (Daisy in 2008, Jack in 2011). Volunteers at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre worked around the clock to save them, using purpose-built slings to help them float (and breathe). The two were recently moved into the beluga habitat, which has given them more room to exhibit natural behaviours, such as this side-by-side swimming recorded days after the move in January.

Harbour Porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetaceans, yet very little is known about them. As such, Jack and Daisy not only serve as excellent ambassadors for their species (I know tons of people who now love porpoises!), but are also helping scientists understand them better. In 2013, a porpoise named Levi was successfully rescued and re-released, in part due to what was learned from working with Jack and Daisy.

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The many shows and talks are educational in nature, focusing on husbandry procedures (which, inevitably, showcases the bond between the animals and their trainers), the plight of the animals’ wild counterparts, and stories of the often-rescued animals themselves. For example, how Pacific White-Sided Dolphin Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan (no, NOT Taiji!) and had to have her pectoral fins partially removed.

Helen dolphin

Chester and Hellen

Chester and Helen

The aquarium also has special programming throughout the year, such as Divers Weekend as seen below.  Other examples include “After Hours” adults-only nights, and the always-popular appearances from Scuba Stanta at Christmas.  Darth Vader even made a special appearance once during “Sea Star Wars”.

In 2015, the aquarium performed groundbreaking surgery on a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin named Hana. It was kind of an “all bets are off” situation as she would not have otherwise recovered. Although Hana sadly did not survive her illness, what veterinarians learned may help save other animals in the future.

Hana

Hana

The Vancouver Aquarium conducts research into why Stellar Sea Lion populations have plummeted.  This includes measuring the metabolism of trained sea lions based at an open water research site, and examining sea lion poop.  They discovered that sea lions are increasingly eating lower-nutrient fish as higher-energy fish stocks are depleted.

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

While visiting the Toronto Zoo, I learned that their polar bear cub was being fed formula that the Vancouver Aquarium helped develop due to their expertise and extensive research involving various arctic animals.  Reputable facilities often work together and share information for the greater good.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Up-close with Aurora, a beluga whale.  The Vancouver Aquarium has been involved in extensive research on this threatened species.

Throughout my life I have heard of the aquarium wanting to expand its habitats, but the same activists who scream that they are “too small” and “inhumane” are the same ones who block the aquarium’s efforts to improve at every turn (much like happened with Blue World Project at SeaWorld recently). Which is it?

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Oh, wait, I know… When Chester the false killer whale was found washed up on a beach in Tofino, animal rights activists were calling for his death as it was “more humane” than a second chance at life. Would they say the same thing about a car accident victim who was certain to never walk again? Frankly, having seen Chester in the flesh, I think he is doing just fine.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

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So all in all the Vancouver Aquarium is an excellent facility all-around, despite what they naysayers (who often have not even visited them) arbitrarily nitpick.  It is the place this prairie-raised animal-tech student learned to appreciate the aquatic world, which always seemed to out of reach.  Give them a visit, and you will certainly learn something new about our natural world too.

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Facility Spotlight: Sea World Gold Coast (Australia)

Facility Spotlight: SeaWorld Gold Coast. (Queensland, Australia)

Visited: August of 2014.

To be clear, Sea World Gold Coast is not affiliated with the American SeaWorld, instead being operated by Village Roadshow. Although my friend had warned me that the place was “kind of bogan”, I was not prepared for how underwhelming it was. Simply put, it was the most boring place I have ever been that had dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

But let’s focus on the high points first: The polar bear habitat, which is among the most technologically advanced in the world, was spacious with impressive landscaping and ample enrichment opportunities for the animals. They were swimming, jumping off the “cliffs”, and having what appeared to be a grand old time. Who would have thought that in Australia these threatened arctic animals could have such a good life? Kind of ironic when you consider climate change is killing them.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

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The dolphin habitats are spacious, sandy-bottomed, and fringed with a small beach for a naturalistic look. The park also makes an effort at being educational, with informative signs found throughout, and an interesting narrative during the dolphin show “Imagine” (since replaced with “Affinity”).

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Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Unfortunately, it seemed as though at least some of the dolphins were as bored as I was. While admiring the animals in the Dolphin Nursery, a couple brought their few toys over and placed them on the shore as close to my feet as they could. Having just visited the vastly superior SeaWorld San Diego, where the dolphins can freely interact with visitors as they choose, including having them throw toys, it was not difficult to guess what these fellows wanted.

It was then I realized that there was no staff around at all to answer visitors’ questions, give small scale educational talks, interact with the animals, or any combination thereof — something I frequently see in other facilities.  Eventually, someone did do a walk around the perimeter, which caught the dolphins’ attention, but he completely ignored them.

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Amity, an Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin

That said, at one point I did see some at a distance engaging in a training session, and the dolphins do seem to have a great relationship with their trainers, but being able to see more of this from a better vantage point would have been nice.  There are no underwater observation areas, either, which go a long way towards helping a person appreciate these amazing marine mammals.

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show "Affinity". Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show “Affinity”. Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

There was a lot of hype for the sea lion feeding, but as the feeding platform was at a distance from the main observation areas, anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege quickly lost interest.

As for the sea lion show, “Fish Detectives”, it was remarkably similar to the clichéd “whodunit” story that was running at the unaffiliated SeaWorld San Antonio, right down to the animals’ names (one was named Claude instead of Clyde). Couldn’t they have come up with something more original?  Especially considering how cool sea lion naturally are…?  Honestly, I couldn’t even stay for the duration.

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“We’re much better than the shows make us look, I swear”

The small number of rides can only be described as lackluster. I wasn’t expecting something like Dreamworld, but SOMETHING to help kill the lengthy wait times between shows would have been nice. (Although interestingly enough Dreamworld has an excellent and much more interactive zoological area, and are one of the single largest contributors to tiger conservation).

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

I had intended to stay the whole day, but with overly spaced-out shows, absolutely nothing to do in-between, and with some of the animals looking just as bored as I felt, I left early feeling ripped off and far from inspired.  Several people have said I must have visited on a really bad day, and if I go back and have a good one, I will happily update as appropriate.  But as it is, with this being the only facility of its kind in Australia, it is unfortunate that if I didn’t already love marine life, Sea World Gold Coast would not have changed my mind.

Pass.