Skip to main content

Aurora, a Beluga whale, swims with her newborn calf after giving birth at the Vancouver Aquarium in June, 2009.

ANDY CLARK/REUTERS

The deaths of two beluga whales – a mother and calf in the same tank – within two weeks at the Vancouver Aquarium have sparked a global mystery, with police being consulted, and marine experts examining possible causes that include the animals' food, an infection or even poisoning.

The facility has kept whales since the 1960s, when it acquired its first orca, and several have died in that time, but never two so close together.

Necropsies have so far failed to pinpoint a cause of death, and aquarium staff said they had not ruled anything out and had been in contact with the police.

Story continues below advertisement

Andrew Trites, a University of British Columbia marine mammal researcher visiting the French coastal city of La Rochelle, said he mentioned the B.C. situation to scientists there.

"They said, 'C'est incroyable. None of us have heard of such a thing happening,'" Dr. Trites said in an interview on Monday from Europe.

Related: Second beluga death at Vancouver Aquarium prompts talk about whales in captivity

Related: Beluga whale conceived and born in captivity dies in Vancouver

Read more: Vancouver Aquarium trying to block documentary, filmmaker's lawyer says

Neither has the Vancouver Aquarium in its 60-year history. On Monday, officials said they have launched a massive scientific investigation into what happened to 30-year-old Aurora and her 21-year-old calf, Qila.

"The guiding principle is absolutely no stone unturned," aquarium CEO and president John Nightingale told a news conference.

Story continues below advertisement

Martin Haulena, the head veterinarian for the facility, said the most likely cause was a virus or toxin. He said "toxin" is a broad term that includes toxins from bacteria, inorganic toxins or "possibly introduced toxins as well."

Commenting on the possibility of poisoning, Dr. Nightingale said the aquarium reviewed surveillance footage, changed security procedures and has had "a couple of conversations" with the Vancouver Police Department.

A spokesman for the force in an e-mail statement played down any contact with the aquarium. "I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that the unfortunate demise of the beluga whales were as a result of a criminal act," Staff-Sergeant Randy Fincham said.

Qila, the first beluga born in captivity in Canada, died two weeks ago, and Aurora died late last week with similar symptoms. Aurora had shown signs of lethargy, a loss of appetite and abdominal cramping.

"I don't have to tell you it's perplexing how you can lose two belugas so closely together with no explanation," Dr. Nightingale said a few metres from the now-empty pool where Aurora and Qila had delighted tens of thousands of visitors.

Jay Barlow, president of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, which includes some of the world's leading experts, said from California on Monday that aquariums around the world will be watching for the solution to this mystery.

Story continues below advertisement

"As far as I know, this is unprecedented," Dr. Barlow said from San Diego. "It seems like to me that they died of the same cause, whatever that could be."

He said he wonders whether it was a common food source or a disease to which both were exposed.

Dr. Nightingale said there is no evidence of something nefarious "except for a whole bunch of weird coincidences."

Last Thursday night, someone broke into a marine mammal rescue centre operated by the aquarium on the Vancouver port, spreading debris, and draining water from a pool containing seal pups. The seals were not harmed. Police are investigating.

Dr. Nightingale also said social-media "trolls" have been "systematically harassing" some aquarium staff. Then came the two beluga deaths. "[It's] a number of circumstances that, taken together, paint a pretty clouded and confusing picture," he said.

While animals have died in aquariums, Dr. Trites said he could not think of a case where two related animals had died so closely together with similar symptoms yet no known cause.

Story continues below advertisement

"It could well be something that we have never seen before. That's a possibility in the same way, for humans, that when AIDS first came, nobody knew what it was," he said, speculating that it could be a virus from a bird or a unknown fungal infection.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter