VANCOUVER - All possible explanations - from food sickness to intentional poisoning - are being investigated for the deaths of two of the Vancouver Aquarium's beluga whales after examinations failed to pinpoint why they died, an official said Monday.
Aquarium CEO John Nightingale described the deaths of the two animals in such quick succession as unprecedented, not only at the aquarium, which has operated for six decades, but also at other such institutions.
"I don't have to tell you it's perplexing," Nightingale told a room of reporters, three days after the death of Aurora the beluga.
Fewer than two weeks ago, Aurora was put under round-the-clock supervision and veterinary care after she began to exhibit the same symptoms that preceded the recent death of her 21-year-old calf Qila. Aurora died on Friday, nine days after Qila.
"The pledge from myself, from our board, from our entire staff and volunteers, is: we're going to get to the bottom of it," Nightingale added. "The guiding principle is: absolutely no stone unturned."
Opponents of keeping cetaceans in captivity are calling on the marine institution to abandon its beluga program and cancel its plans to expand the animals' tank.
None of the aquarium's five other belugas housed at facilities across the United States will return to Vancouver, nor will construction begin on the tank enlargement, until the belugas' deaths are understood, Nightingale said.
"We will not make any decisions about going forward until we know what happened," he said. "To do otherwise would be irresponsible."
Martin Haulena, chief veterinarian at the aquarium, said the similarities in behaviour and symptoms suggest Qila and Aurora's illnesses were linked. The most likely culprit is either a virus or a toxin, and tissue samples have been sent to various universities for analysis, he added.
"This does not happen on my watch," Haulena said. "This is not what I do.
"I will not rest until we find some answers. That's a promise. And neither will anyone else around here. We loved those whales."
Sara Dubois of the British Columbia SPCA extended condolences to the aquarium but emphasized her society's opposition to keeping whales in artificial enclosures.
"Any time you care for an animal for so long you can imagine how heartbreaking it is to lose them, especially in such an unexpected way," Dubois said. "At the same time, I think it's a really good time to take a reflection on what the future will be."
This is a real leadership opportunity for the aquarium to envision the future of marine facilities and to invest in the idea of whale sanctuaries, she said.
In 2010, Park commissioners rejected a motion for a plebiscite asking if the whale and dolphin exhibits should be phased out at the aquarium. But the deaths of the belugas has renewed a call from critics.
Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society endorsed the idea of asking for the public's input but said the question can't wait until 2018, when B.C. is scheduled to hold its next round of municipal elections.
"By that time, the expansion plans would be well underway and it would be obviously difficult to change course when (the aquarium) had committed literally millions of dollars," Fricker said.
The topic of captive cetaceans is also making its way into the halls of Parliament. Sen. Wilfred Moore of Nova Scotia recently introduced a bill that would phase out the captivity of whales, dolphins and porpoises, with the exception of rescues and rehabilitation.
The aquarium is one of only two Canadian facilities that keeps cetaceans, the other being Marineland in Niagara, Ont.
Vancouver's remaining cetaceans are a harbour porpoise, a Pacific white-sided dolphin and a false killer whale, none of which appear to be ill, Nightingale said.