A little more than an hour before a beluga whale died in a Vancouver Aquarium pool early Friday, a marine mammal trainer tending to the ailing creature looked up and saw a stranger standing within the enclosure. The man fled, and is now being sought by police.
The incident is raising questions about security at the venerable Vancouver institution located in Stanley Park, although police said there does not appear to be any link between the man and the death of three-year-old Tiqa.
Late Friday afternoon, the aquarium reported that a necropsy found Tiqa had pneumonia, although the underlying cause is not yet known.
The aquarium’s president has a number of questions about the stranger, however, including whether his entry – past barbed wire – was a first or the latest at the operation in Stanley Park.
“The real thing you wonder about is, ‘Okay, if they got in here last night without the alarms going off, have they done it before, because clearly they got in here enough last night,” John Nightingale said.
Tiqa had been ailing for a few days, Mr. Nightingale said.
Constable Jana McGuinness, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, said police were on the scene Friday. She added that there was no video evidence from the aquarium, but police were looking for video from elsewhere in the area to help their investigation.
Clint Wright, general manager of the aquarium, said he got a call just after 4 a.m. Friday from the rattled staffer who first saw the man.
“She yelled out something like, ‘Hey you.’ He immediately froze, and it looked like he was going a different way,” Mr. Wright said. Then, he “jumped straight out again.”
For some reason, the perimeter alarm at the aquarium did not go off. The aquarium has 24-hour security staff, but the only reason a scientific staffer was in the whale enclosure at the time was that Tiqa was being monitored.
Mr. Nightingale said Vancouver police would help the aquarium with a review of its security.
The aquarium president, who has worked at the facility for 18 years, said the closest similar such incident he could recall was an incident in the late 1960s or early 1970s when someone invaded the facility and poured chemicals in the life-support systems, killing most of the fish. More recently, he said, there have been incidents where someone opened a back gate to let friends in, triggering alarms.
Tiqa had been mildly ill for 10 days, with a fluctuating appetite. Blood samples seemed normal, but an infection was detected on Thursday, and the whale died by 5:45 a.m.
Tiqa was the third beluga calf to die at the aquarium in a decade. One whale died in 2005. Another died in 2010 after its airway became inflamed.
Mr. Nightingale said the death had been devastating to the aquarium family. “There are a number of fairly unhappy, sad, and distraught staff and volunteers around the aquarium today,” he said.
He said a major, far-flung assessment has been launched to figure out what went wrong. He said there have been no threats against the aquarium.