British Columbia

Q&A: CEO of Vancouver Aquarium on future of beluga exhibit after Qila's death

Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale talks about the future of the beluga exhibit after the sudden and unexpected death of Qila, a 21-year-old beluga whale.

Aurora, Qila's mother, is under watch after displaying similar symptoms to the deceased beluga

Vancouver Aquarium President John Nightingale says aquarium staff are focused on caring for Aurora, a 29-year-old beluga whale. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The Vancouver Aquarium is fully focused on making sure a second beluga doesn't fall victim to the mysterious ailment that killed a 21-year-old beluga whale Wednesday.

The aquarium announced Thursday 29-year-old Aurora, the mother of the dead beluga Qila, was displaying the same symptoms Qila did before she died.

John Nightingale, the president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, spoke with The Early Edition's Rick Cluff about Aurora's condition and the future of the beluga exhibit.

What do you we know about why Qila died?

We don't know yet. It's still quite mysterious.

She would crunch, which is mammal trainer talk for bending at the middle like your stomach hurt. She was treated with some broad spectrum antibiotics and other treatment to relieve and ease any stomach pain. Things appeared to be getting better and then she just died, literally within a few minutes.

There are two sort of general possible areas of cause: one would be disease and the other would be some kind of a toxin.

Testing is underway, all sorts of avenues are being pursued.

How is her mother Aurora doing?

Just like Qila, Aurora's appetite yoyo-ed a little bit. Then she went off food. With a cetacean, that's always a sure sign things are amiss.

A trainer works with Beluga whale Aurora at the Vancouver Aquarium on Wednesday June 25, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

How closely is Aurora being monitored?

She's in the medical pool, which is kind of like the hospital, with a team caring for her 24 hours around the clock.

She hasn't been eating and since marine mammals get the water they need through their food, she's been given fluids. She's also been given some broad spectrum antibiotics and analgesics to ease whatever pain there might be.

Since 2005, three beluga whales — Tuvaq, Nala and Tiqa — have died at the aquarium within three years of their birth. Is the aquarium's plan to expand the whale tanks still going ahead?

That's a bridge we'll cross in a few days. Our whole focus right now is on Aurora's care. We're using a 24, 48, 72 hour timeframe. All the other questions are going to have wait until we see we can get her well.

You do have other belugas at other aquariums. Do you plan to bring any of them back?

The reason that we sent some of them away is that we're getting ready for the construction of the new Canada's Arctic [exhibit]. Belugas don't particularly like construction but Qila and Aurora have been around and are pretty used to it. The intention is and always was to bring some back when we have the new larger Canada's Arctic exhibit for them to swim around in.

Qila receives a freshly prepared herring in this 2011 photo. Qila died suddenly Wednesday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

It's been 20 years that the Vancouver Aquarium committed to stop capturing whales. How do you respond to critics who say this is more evidence that whales do not belong at the aquarium?

To the degree I can I urge people not to think about belugas as if they were people, which I hear a lot. Like, "I couldn't imagine living in a pool like that." Well, the beluga couldn't imagine living in your living room either.

They are fit and adapted to live the life they lead and different things matter to them than what matters to us.

The second part is those belugas are among — if not the best — animals we have that starts the process of curiosity and awareness in people.

We understand the impact that we're having on the ocean and we need to grow the choir for people who are interested enough to take some notice in the way we live and think about our society and the oceans.

If you have an animal like a beluga whale that is so good at lighting that little flicker of flame of interest and curiosity, I'd hate to lose it. It's at the very heart of our mission.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Vancouver Aquarium President John Nightingale on Aurora the beluga's condition