British Columbia

How an aquarium without whales can teach us about them

The Maui Ocean Centre has found other ways to educate visitors about whales and dolphins — without keeping them in captivity.

The Maui Ocean Centre does not hold cetaceans like whales and dolphins captive

The Maui Ocean Centre has never kept whales or dolphins in captivity. (Maui Ocean Centre)

An aquarium in Hawaii says it's more than possible to teach the public about whales and dolphins without having to keep them in captivity.

The sudden death of two beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium have reignited the debate of whether whales and dolphins should be kept in captivity.

Colleen Foster, the director of education at the Maui Ocean Center, told CBC's The Early Edition, whales in captivity have never been part of her aquarium's mandate.

"In 1998 [when the aquarium opened], we did not have captive cetaceans at that time. In 2002, when the county of Maui ordinance came through [to ban whales in captivity], we went in support of that."

Foster said Maui county and the aquarium operate on the premise that it is difficult to keep highly intelligent species like whales and dolphins in captivity and they are best viewed in their natural habitat.

The Maui Ocean Centre is right on the harbour and looks out onto humpback whale national marine sanctuary where visitors can see wild whale behaviour with binoculars. (Maui Ocean Centre/Instagram)

Instead the Hawaiian aquarium has focused on using live scale models and video to educate visitors about whales and dolphins.

The aquarium is also located close to a humpback whale sanctuary and wild whales can often be spotted from the shore with binoculars, Foster added.

Foster said the aquarium hadn't always been vocal about its no-cetacean stance until they saw an opportunity to further the education of visitors.

"We used to get comments in our guest-book from folks who were like 'how come there's no dolphin show?' [So] we thought we need to interpret this for folks so they understand what's happening," Foster said.

"[Now] we [have a sign] explaining why there were no dolphins. The language changed, [we got] comments from guests saying we support what you're doing."

However, Foster said she's not judging aquariums which have whales. She said it's a difficult question.

"I think it's always a challenge to have to engage someone when they can't look in the eye of animal. There's no doubt that that has an impact on folks."

The Maui Ocean Center has a special permit that allows them to collect animals — like hammerhead sharks — off the coast of Hawaii, exhibit them for 12 months, and then release them to where they were found. (Maui Ocean Centre/Instagram)

The Vancouver Aquarium has a porpoise, a dolphin and a false killer whale in its collection, as well as several beluga whales that are on loan to other institutions. But it no longer captures healthy cetaceans from the wild.

On Monday, Vancouver Park Board Chair Sarah Kirby-Yung introduced a notice of motion supporting a plebiscite in the 2018 Vancouver municipal election on whether whales should be held in captivity.

Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale has defended the aquarium's policy of keeping cetaceans in captivity, saying animals like belugas are a great way of inspiring people to care about ocean conservation at large.

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled An aquarium without whales: Maui provides a model