Here's an idea for the Vancouver Aquarium. Instead of continuing the anachronistic display of captive whales and dolphins, how about incorporating the excitement of virtual and augmented reality? What if our visits to the aquarium were a more natural version of this?

Augmented reality of breaching whale, created by Magic Leap Inc.

Vancouver has been thrust into another divisive debate over cetacean captivity by the shocking and out of the blue deaths of Vancouver Aquarium's mother and daughter pair of beluga whales, Aurora and Qila.

While the circumstances seem sudden and unexpected, beluga deaths are hardly uncommon. In the last ten years alone, the Vancouver Aquarium has lost all six of its Vancouver-based belugas. They are Tuvac, Tiqa, Nala, Kavna, Qila, and Aurora.

These were not the only Vancouver Aquarium belugas to have died in recent years. Two others, Nanuq and Stella, died at SeaWorld in 2015.

15 beluga deaths in 10 years

And there are more.

Vancouver Aquarium’s beluga breeding partnership with SeaWorld Entertainment Inc, which includes artificial insemination, has generated 13 live births and two stillbirths since 2006. In fact, every single baby beluga born at any of SeaWorld's North American locations since 2000 was generated in partnership with the Vancouver Aquarium, and sired by one of our males.

Including two stillbirths and the two-year old Stella, eight of those calves died, and just seven survive. Vancouver owns three of those seven, and possibly a fourth, born last summer.

In all, the death toll of Vancouver Aquarium belugas, or calves sired by them at SeaWorld, stands at 15, if my calculations are correct.

Still, baby belugas are great business, especially for SeaWorld. Below is a promotional video by SeaWorld, urging the public to visit the park to see its new beluga baby, generated from its breeding partnership with Vancouver Aquarium:

Vancouver Aquarium's Imaq sired this SeaWorld calf, which lived less than a month.

It lived only a few short weeks.

The financial details of Vancouver's SeaWorld breeding partnership remain shrouded in secrecy, because buying and selling zoo and aquarium animals is prohibited. To get around the ban on sale of exhibit animals, zoos and aquariums have a highly developed barter system. The Vancouver Aquarium has not disclosed any terms of its agreement with SeaWorld and other aquariums.

And so, in the midst of the deep grief of dedicated aquarium staff and devoted supporters, the issue of cetacean captivity is thrust once more before the wider public.

The urgency with which that question returns is a prod to our conscience that we can’t ignore.

So here’s a question: Does a spectacular Vancouver Aquarium experience have to involve the display of captive dolphins and whales? Can we not put captivity in the past, and still be inspired and inspiring?

Let's do this better. Let's bring the aquarium experience into the 21st century

Instead of contemplating the bleak exhibit of empty tanks, we could start by asking about possibility? ‘What if?’

The world is enjoying a golden age of nature-based film and media, while Vancouver is a centre of technology and innovation.

This city prizes conservation and sustainability. As does the Vancouver Aquarium. We don't have to be divided.

What if the aquarium replaced live whales with a world-leading tech-based experience of marine life in the wild? Holograph and augmented reality technology already enables brilliant user experience. What if a visit to the aquarium was an even more dramatic and lifelike?

What if Vancouver stood at the forefront of a revolution in whale and dolphin exhibition, using the talents and creativity of our own tech sector?

And here's another idea. What if, instead of displaying dolphins and whales in elaborate tanks, the Vancouver Aquarium created a sanctuary for retired marine show animals, as has been done with other animals such as elephants and chimpanzees?

After instituting a captive breeding ban in 2011, this past June the US National Aquarium in Baltimore announced the planned retirement of its show dolphins to a seaside sanctuary for the remainder of their days. This sanctuary, the first of its kind in North America, is slated to open in 2020.

A similar facility here was suggested last year by eminent animal neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino of Emory University and supported by Dr. Dave Duffus, co-founder of University of Victoria’s Whale Lab.

What if we returned our beluga whales from SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Inc? What if we ended their years of performing demeaning trick shows and breeding baby belugas for profit and instead “put them out to pasture” in a marine sanctuary?

Whale and dolphin captivity disappearing from modern aquariums

In truth, the breeding and display of captive whales and dolphins is already out of date. Hawaii, Seattle, Tampa, Boston, and world-renowned Monterey Bay facilities all have successful and flourishing aquariums without them.

In September, California passed legislation banning captive breeding of Orca whales, a move that will eventually end the era of Orca captivity.

The Vancouver Aquarium has a chance to become a global leader in the exciting and humane presentation of whales and dolphins. It could be the hero of this story and attract untold new visitors and tourism.

The world is moving on from last century’s fascination with captive whales, and right now we are falling behind.

No matter how beautiful the new aquarium tanks may be, their status as an anachronistic throw-back will only become more pronounced with the passage of time. What is their plan when the next whale dies, and the ones after that?

Vancouver Park Board Chair Sarah Kirby-Yung will table a motion Monday evening, calling for a plebiscite on this issue in the 2018 municipal election.

It's time for the Park Board and Aquarium to take their time and think bigger, bolder and more confidently.

We can do better than engaging in a divisive and needlessly partisan plebiscite choice between status quo and dull empty tanks.

Thrill and amaze us.

And most of all, do the right thing for the whales and dolphins we have.

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