Sunday's birth of the latest baby beluga brings to six the number of whales at the Vancouver Aquarium. It is now 45 years since the Aquarium displayed its first whale and with the exception of a small number of anti-captivity activists, the public seems to have accepted that captive whales serve a useful educational purpose.
A lot has changed in our attitude toward whales since the summer of 1964 when an orca named Moby Doll became the Aquarium's first resident whale. In those days, orcas were considered to be dangerous, man-eating predators. Hence their more common name, killer whales. Fishermen hated them; boaters feared them; and scientists knew almost nothing about them.
It was the Aquarium's first director, Murray Newman, who wanted a life-size sculpture of an orca hanging from the ceiling of the entrance to the facility. Newman dispatched a team of hunters to Saturna Island with instructions to harpoon one of the animals to use as a model. Mission accomplished, with a twist. On July 16, Sam Burich, a sculptor and commercial fisherman, succeeded in striking a whale, but instead of killing it the harpoon snagged the animal and held it fast. Newman, in a bit of a quandry what to do, decided to have the whale towed across to Burrard Inlet where it was installed firstly at Burrard Dry Dock in North Vancouver and then at a purpose-built tank at the Jericho military base.
Thousands of Vancouverites flocked to the waterfront to see the whale. So little was known about orcas that no one even knew what to feed it or, indeed, what sex it was. The latter question was answered when a young girl asked her father, "What's that?", pointing at Moby Doll's suddenly visible penis. The second question was not answered for two months. Believing that "killers" must eat meat, Moby's minders fed him a variety of animal parts until they finally discovered that he liked fish.
Less than three months after his capture, Moby Doll died of a lung infection. His short stay was the beginning of a revolution in the way people thought about killer whales. Instead of a fearsome predator, visitors to the tank found an amiable creature who appeared to be intelligent and playful. It wasn't long before laws were being passed to protect the whales in the wild and research was being undertaken that completely revised what we thought we knew about them.
The Aquarium went on to keep several orcas in captivity until 1996 when, bowing to public pressure, it stopped collecting killer whales from the wild. The last orca to live at the facility left for San Diego in 2001.
The debate continues between those who believe it is wrong to keep animals in captivity, including belugas, and those who argue that aquariums are vital educational facilities that introduce the public to the wonders of the marine world. For the moment, judging by the welcome the new baby beluga is receiving, the weight of public opinion is coming down on the side of the Aquarium.
(And if you'd like to learn more about coastal killer whales, pick up a copy of my book Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales, co-authored with Gil Hewlett and published by Harbour Publishing.)