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The Vancouver Aquarium's youngest beluga whale, a healthy three-year-old male named Tuvaq, died suddenly yesterday after routine blood tests.

In human terms, the whale's death was the equivalent of an 18-year-old football player keeling over dead on the practice field, aquarium director David Huff said.

"We fed him a few herrings and he started to play and hang out with his buddies, and the next thing, one of the trainers ran in to tell me he stopped, instantaneously," Dr. Huff said.

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"There was no movement, no thrashing, nothing."

Dr. Huff said that at 9:30 a.m. yesterday, he and other staff members took a routine blood sample from Tuvaq, one of six belugas at the aquarium.

About an hour later, Tuvaq was dead. Dr. Huff said there was no indication of infection or illness.

The whale's abrupt death, which Dr. Huff said he's never encountered before, could be the result of a ruptured blood vessel, a stroke or a heart attack.

A crane was used to move Tuvaq's body to a medical isolation pool and it was then transported to the provincial animal health centre in Abbotsford for a full autopsy.

A ruptured blood vessel would be evident almost immediately, if that is what caused the beluga's death. But other causes may not be as clear, and full results could take days or even weeks.

The half-brother of six-year-old Qila, Tuvaq's mischief-making and disruptive antics during training and shows earned the beluga the reputation of the bratty brother by aquarium staff.

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Dr. Huff called Tuvaq a much-loved ragamuffin in the pool and said that the animal refused to play the role of the well-trained beluga whale during performances.

The whale's death prompted the No Whales in Captivity group to renew calls yesterday for the Vancouver park board to hold a referendum on keeping whales in captivity in the aquarium.

Tuvaq is the fifth young whale to die at the aquarium.

It's too early to know whether Tuvaq's death will have an impact on a planned move of one of the whales to SeaWorld in San Diego this month.

Allua, which helped nurse Tuvaq when the beluga's mother, Aurora, gave birth on July 20, 2002, is being flown from Vancouver to participate in a breeding program.

Aquarium staff hope the 21-year-old whale will become pregnant for the first time.

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Allua is to expected mate with Ferdinand, a 36-year-old beluga acquired from a German zoo last year. Aquariums frequently borrow or trade beluga whales in order to breed more of the marine mammals rather than capture additional ones from the wild.

Three other female belugas and one male remain at Vancouver Aquarium.

Bjossa, the last beluga sent to SeaWorld, died from a chronic lung infection six months after arriving in 2001.

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