Vancouver Aquarium belugas died from mystery toxin, investigation finds
Named after the aurora borealis, or northern lights, Aurora immediately won hearts and inspired generations of visitors, employees and volunteers with her curious nature and gentle personality. Along with the other belugas at the Aquarium, including her daughter Qila, Aurora taught millions about her incredible species and its rapidly changing ecosystem in the wild. The whales have contributed to studies on their physiology, hearing and acoustic abilities; provided baseline data for studies in the wild; and helped scientists discover unique vocalizations between beluga whale mothers and calves, called contact calls. This groundbreaking research began at Vancouver Aquarium in 2002; beluga whales Aurora and Qila contributed to those early studies. Aurora passed away from an unknown illness Friday evening November 25, 2016. (File Photo)
Two belugas that died at the Vancouver Aquarium last fall succumbed to a mysterious toxin, according to a five-month investigation.
Aurora, a 29-year-old female beluga, died in late November just nine days after her 21-year-old daughter Qila passed away suddenly.
An investigation involving dozens of veterinary pathologists, toxicologists, genome specialists, medical doctors, and field research scientists failed to find a specific toxin. Toxins are difficult to identify because they persist for a limited time in the blood stream.
The toxin was likely introduced by food, water or human interference, the investigation found.
“The loss of Qila and Aurora was devastating," said Dr. Martin Haulena, Head Veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, in a release. "They were beloved members of our family and the community for more than two decades. Their loss is felt profoundly by our staff, members, supporters, and the public."
The Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre Program also houses a false killer whale, a Pacific white-sided dolphin and a harbour porpoise in long-term care.
To reduce the risk of further infections the aquarium has introduced an enhanced food-screening process and has removed vegetation adjacent to the habitat. Mechanical water treatment systems are being overhauled as a precaution and a new regime of real-time testing for incoming and recirculating water has been implemented.
The aquarium has also updated security around the habitat to reduce the threat of human interference.
In 2010, Aurora’s calf Nala died just two weeks after her first birthday when her airway became blocked, and in 2005, three-year-old Tuvaq died from heart arrhythmia. Qila’s three-year-old calf, Tiqa, died of pneumonia in 2011.
Once again, fierce debate has ignited over whether the aquarium should continue holding whales, dolphins and porpoises in its tanks.
In 1996, the Vancouver park board passed a bylaw forbidding the aquarium from capturing its animals. The aquarium currently has five belugas on loan to U.S. marine parks for breeding.