Lucas Nielsen with Chester the false killer whale at the Vancouver aquarium. Photo Claire Nielsen

No to the cessation of Vancouver Aquarium cetaceans

Dear Editor,

In light of what is going on with the Vancouver Parks Board decision and how it affects the Vancouver Aquarium &the Marine Mammal Rescue Organization (MMR), I would like to share how we feel about this. For any who are unaware, the Vancouver Parks Board has recently decided not to allow any future cetaceans (whales) to live at the Vancouver Aquarium. However, several years ago the Vancouver Aquarium developed a policy not to bring in any new marine mammals that weren’t rescues. Where other aquariums around the world buy and breed whales, the VanAqua committed to only housing marine mammals that were rescued and deemed non-releasable. The Federal Dept of Fisheries &Oceans determines if a rescued and rehabilitated animal is able to be released back into the wild, or is non-releasable and in need of a permanent habitat in an aquarium facility. The ramifications of the Parks Board ruling is that any further injured or weak whales will be euthanized rather than rescued.

I would like to share an amazing story that would not be possible if it weren’t for the amazing efforts of the VanAqua and the MMR. My son and I were visiting the aquarium in the spring of 2015 and happened to be there the week Chester (the rescued baby False Killer Whale) was being introduced to the large tank inhabited by Helen, the Pacific White-sided Dolphin. We fell in love with Chester on first sight. We read his amazing rescue story on the wall, saw his rescue video and started to research everything we could about him and his species. We made many more visits to the aquarium and Lucas developed a friendship with Chester. Chester started recognizing Lucas and following him from window to window. He would often smile and chatter to Lucas and even stick out his tongue and share his food. As Lucas has had trouble making friends with kids in the Lower Mainland, Chester became his best friend there. Lucas has spent many hours in communication with Chester through the glass window, and they really seem to have a connection.

Lucas decided to do a presentation about Chester for school and was able to present it to about 25 staff and management at the Aquarium. The response and appreciation of all those who work at the aquarium was so heart-warming. As Lucas’s mom I was able to observe the crowd while he presented his report on the big screen in the viewing gallery. The staff were obviously moved by his presentation and there were a few teary eyes. Lucas’s online presentation can be seen here: https://prezi.com/sohrvsheabxh/chester/ and also mentioned on the Vancouver Aquarium Aquablog http://www.aquablog.ca/2016/03/a-special-lesson-from-one-of-chesters-fans/

There was quite a bit of media attention after this which led to an invitation by Tourism Tofino to visit the beach where Chester was rescued. We went to Tofino and were treated like royalty. Meeting Chester’s rescuers on North Chesterman’s Beach, and also the mayor of Tofino was a real highlight of our trip. We also now have a great appreciation for the laborious journey the Marine Mammal Rescue team had in getting Chester to the Lower Mainland facility. His survival chances were less than 10% but today he is a thriving and engaging young False Killer Whale, very happy to be alive. To think that the Parks Board decision would mean future animals like Chester would be euthanized on the spot, breaks our hearts.

The whole experience of getting to know Chester and the other marine life, learning about the aquarium more intimately, and getting to know the “human” family that stewards the aquarium and cares for its inhabitants, as well as some of the scientists that work with the aquarium, has been the most incredible experience. I have come to understand and appreciate how challenging it must be to run a non-profit organization like the Vancouver Aquarium with its incredible overhead costs and commitment to conservation, research, education, rescue and rehabilitation, while keeping us entertained with its informative dynamic interpretive shows and beautiful displays, all the while constantly being in the media spotlight. Most people (myself included until recently) only think of our aquarium as a nice place to visit and be entertained and learn something new but it is so much more.

Many don’t know that the Marine Mammal Rescue Organization (operating 24 hours a day) is part of the Vancouver Aquarium. This is the only marine mammal rescue organization in Canada and I am also very proud that VanAqua was the first aquarium in North America to make a policy of only housing rescued marine mammals always with the intention of releasing them back to their natural environment. The marine mammals that find a permanent home at the aquarium are deemed non-releasable. It really shows that their number one concern is for the well-being of the animals and their environments.

The rescues are often dangerous and rehabilitation efforts are laborious, requiring many (sometimes thousands) of hours of volunteer work by staff and support individuals. The animals that are deemed non-releasable by the Dept of Fisheries are well taken care of at the aquarium and teach us a lot about their species, their exposure to toxins or the changing environment, and what we can do to help them thrive in the wild. Generally speaking, many people don’t care so much about what is happening under the water bodies of our planet if they have not experienced some sort of interaction or exposure to the creatures that live there. The aquarium offers up close and personal exposure to life forms that need us to protect their natural environment. Humanity is drastically changing our oceans, lakes and rivers with the choices we make to over-use plastics, chemicals, dredging, oil exploration and transportation, and many other practices that are harmful to the environment that many creatures depend on.

All the aquarium presentations are highly informative, incredibly engaging and we learn many new things each visit. Conservation and educating the public definitely seems to be the main goals of the Vancouver Aquarium and because of what I have learned there, I am much more conscious of my own choices and how they impact the environment. I think the Vancouver Aquarium does a great job of amazing us with its beautiful and engaging exhibits, and inspiring us to be better stewards of our natural environment.

I am so grateful for the Vancouver Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Rescue Organization, and all those who work tirelessly in their commitments with these organizations. I am honoured and happy that we have this amazing aquarium in our province and I hope that every person in the Lower Mainland and BC is able to experience everything The Vancouver Aquarium has to offer. Our membership has been the best thing we have ever invested in (and we aren’t even residents of Vancouver) providing hours of education, entertainment, peaceful presence and connection with the natural environment. The goals of the Vancouver Aquarium to “Engage, Amaze and Inspire” have certainly been reached with my family.

My son and I have become volunteer ambassadors of the Vancouver Aquarium in sharing Chester’s story and speaking about the great work they do at VanAqua &MMR. Lucas has presented Chester’s Story at schools, libraries, science centres, at the YMCA – in Vancouver, other areas of BC, and as far away as New Zealand (where False Killer Whales are from).

The Vancouver Aquarium has evolved into a world class facility that amazes thousands of visitors each week. Their motto to engage, amaze and inspire has exactly been our process…

Please research and fully understand the ramifications of the Vancouver Parks Board decision and how it will adversely affect the lives of animals that need rescuing and rehabilitating in the future. They deserve a fighting chance.

http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/daily-poll-what-do-you-think-of-the-vancouver-aquarium-cetacean-ban

In appreciation

Claire Nielsen (&Lucas)

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