Aurora, the last remaining beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium, died Friday night.
The aquarium confirmed the 30-year-old whale died after more than a week of illness, during which she showed symptoms of abdominal cramping, loss of appetite and lethargy.
"The aquarium family is devastated, I think a lot of people in the city are devastated," said Lance Barrett Leonard, the head of the aquarium's cetecean research program, while addressing an audience at a marine mammal research conference at the University of British Columbia Saturday afternoon.
Aurora's death comes nine days after her calf, Qila — the first beluga whale conceived and born in captivity at a Canadian aquarium — died at 21 years old.
Last week, the aquarium said Aurora became ill the day after Qila died, experiencing the same symptoms.
"I know there's a lot of questions about what could have caused this double mortality. I can't speculate on that," Barrett Leonard told the audience.
"It's still very much an open question."
He said researchers will perform a necropsy Saturday to look into the exact cause of death.
The aquarium said Aurora received dedicated around-the-clock care by staff and a veterinary team up until her death. Lab tests were also sent to veterinary experts around the world during the course of the treatment.
Cetaceans in captivity debate reignited
The two deaths have reignited calls to stop keeping cetaceans in captivity, which has been an ongoing debate at the aquarium over the last few years.
Last week Vancouver Park Board chair Sarah Kirby-Yung called for a city-wide referendum on whether Vancouver should allow captive whales.
"I have a lot of heart for both sides of the issue," said Kirby-Yung, who used to work for the aquarium's communications department.
"I think as an institution, they do incredible work. I also have to listen to Vancouverites, that's what I was elected to do, and there's a growing discomfort that people have with having cetaceans there."
NO more whales in captivity Vancouver Aquarium! Build an educational IMAX theatre instead or take people whale... https://t.co/bkUNh3QX8K— @DuaneBurnett
I know all the questionable stuff about keeping whales in captivity, but aurora was there my whole life and I saw her many times :'(— @Vextik
Barrett Leonard also noted in his address that sentiments about animals in captivity change over time. He pointed to the now-defunct polar bear enclosure in Stanley Park as an example of that.
But while he acknowledged he didn't know where the aquarium was headed on the issue, he also defended the program.
"No matter how you feel personally about marine mammals in captivity, I defy anybody to contradict me on the reason that we have them," he said at the conference.
"We have them to serve as animals ambassadors — to inculcate a stewardship ethic and a care about these animals in the wild."
Both Kirby-Yung and Barrett Leonard stated that the belugas at the aquarium were successful in that regard.
"Part of the reason why we love and appreciate them so much is that people had a chance to see them," said Kirby-Yung.
"But that public sentiment appears to be changing, and I think it's important that we have a public dialogue about it."
Aurora was from the Western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales. The average lifespan of a beluga from this population is 15 years in the wild, but some have been known to live as long as 40 or 50 years, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Aurora first arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1990. Qila was Aurora's first offspring.
The facility's five other belugas are living at various locations around the United States while plans for expanding the Stanley Park facility, including doubling the surface area of the beluga tank, are underway.
With files from The Canadian Press