British Columbia·Analysis

John Nightingale's song to save a place for whales hits some wrong notes

Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale raised some eyebrows this week with both his level of rhetoric and his revisionist history, as he defended the need to keep rescuing and capturing cetaceans.

But one historian says ‘The capture and display of orcas transformed people’s vision of them’

Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium receives a freshly prepared herring from trainer Katie Becker. The whale died in November 2016. (Justin Hayward/Canadian Press)

Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale raised some eyebrows this week as he defended the need to keep rescuing and capturing cetaceans.

As the debate about cetaceans in captivity enters a new round of debate, Nightingale's level of rhetoric and his revisionist history of the charged issue rose.

Nightingale claimed the Aquarium didn't deliberately use whales for entertainment —"we never did shows" — and described displays as feeding and training sessions with onlookers.

He said a ban on cetaceans would mean many more of them would die and that he was "flabbergasted" that politicians would even suggest such a thing.

Dr. John Nightingale is the CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Vancouver Park Board votes May 15 on an amended bylaw that would ban any new cetaceans — even injured ones.

Nightingale's save-a-space-for-rescue whales song rings hollow for some, against the backdrop of the aquarium's long history of fatalities, punctuated by the death of two belugas — Qila and Aurora — in 2016.

"That's when emotions started rolling," said Park Board chair Michael Wiebe who supports the ban.

He says there's only been one harbour porpoise returned to the wild in the past 50 years, and the number of rescues needing long-term housing is overblown.

"John Nightingale has been contradicting himself in the media quite a bit on this issue," said Wiebe, who is confident the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, a seaside hospital, can handle injured animals, and return them to the sea.

Long call to ban

Activists — including conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall — have long called to ban even dolphins.

And pretending aquariums aren't a business — and cetaceans don't draw crowds — is disingenuous, says one historian.

University of Victoria researcher Jason Colby said horrific mistakes were made at the Vancouver Aquarium as humans learned about cetaceans.

In the 1970s a team from the Vancouver Aquarium helped capture six narwhals, but all of the animals died. (Paul Nicklen/WWF)

According to newspaper clippings, in the 1970s, six narwhals netted near Baffin Island for the Vancouver Aquarium died.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, three orcas were born but quickly died. This, coupled with the release of the movie Free Willy, about a boy who frees a captive orca, turned the public against the breeding program, dashing excitement with tears.

Leading in education and affinity

But Colby said people are overlooking bigger threats to the animals, namely pipelines and pollution.

"People are hugging a tree while the forest burns down around them. You have an existential threat to the ecosystem of the Salish Sea. The greatest threat to marine mammals in the world today is human development."

Colby believes now more than ever it is crucial that people connect with wild animals and care about their survival.

Getting people interested in marine life is the only way to ensure conservation, say people who work with marine facilities. (Chris Park/Associated Press)

And he believes the Vancouver Aquarium led the world in cetacean education and fostered an affinity with the animals. "The capture and display of orcas transformed people's vision of them," said Colby.

He also believes captive sea mammals helped fuel an awakening that led to an environmental movement that fought to ban commercial whale hunts, and won.

Colby said the future of cetacean display is in rescue and rehabilitation where Vancouver leads the way with Chester the false killer whale and others.

And Vancouver is uniquely positioned to set an example for other aquariums in the future.

An exploding aquarium boom in Asia is currently being fed by animals captured near Russia, he said.

Some sites are slipshod, but few aquariums can match Vancouver standards, even across North America.

That coupled with real environmental threats make this perhaps the worst time to gut the Vancouver Aquarium's ability to house rescues and continue world-class research.

Aurora, a 20-year-old beluga whale, swims with her calf at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., in 2009. The whale died in November 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)


  • A previous version of this story contained incorrect details about the capture of six narwhals for the Vancouver Aquarium. In fact it is believed the capture took place in the 1970s near Baffin Island.
    May 13, 2017 9:05 PM PT