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Dr. John Nightingale, President and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, shows a newly-constructed portion of the aquarium which opened its new parts to the public on Friday, June 13.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Vancouver Aquarium has completed the first phase of its expansion, cutting the ribbon at a ceremony that drew loud yells from protesters but mostly silence from politicians on the issue of whales and dolphins in captivity.

The aquarium, which has been besieged by the issue in recent months, unveiled the 55,000-square-foot expansion Friday. It includes galleries, programs and a courtyard – although installation of new, larger beluga whale and dolphin tanks isn't scheduled to begin until late next year.

John Nightingale, the aquarium's president and chief executive officer, called the expansion the most significant in the facility's history. He said it creates more opportunities for the public to engage with marine life, and called such engagement critical to the aquarium's conservation and rescue efforts.

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As he spoke, protesters could be heard yelling from behind a nearby fence. One protester held up a sign telling Mr. Nightingale to "evolve … or resign."

Industry Minister James Moore, who represented the federal government at the event, did not address the issue of captivity in his remarks. He focused on the research the facility has done, and his own boyhood trips to the venue.

Mr. Moore declined comment when asked after the event if whales and dolphins should be at the facility. He said that's for the aquarium and the city of Vancouver to work out.

Kerry Jang, a Vancouver councillor, said the city is still gathering information and he can see both sides to the debate. He said he would like to see the captivity end at some point, but said there does need to be a place for injured marine mammals to go.

The captivity debate resurfaced in April, with some park board commissioners and the mayor voicing their opposition to the whales and dolphins being held in captivity.

Errol Povah, one of the protesters at Friday's event, said the aquarium needs to shut down the tanks. "No whales, no dolphins in captivity, period," he said. "Vancouver Aquarium likes to paint itself as so different than SeaWorld. My response to that is you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."

Mr. Nightingale said the aquarium has received a tremendous amount of support since the controversy ensued. He expressed confidence the situation would work out in the aquarium's favour.

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