Blue fish, Blackfish

IMG_9444I have no doubt that fall and winter will probably provide some excellent stormy days on which I can write something in a warm coffee shop. However, summer on the coast has been dynamite, and it physically pains me to be inside and/or staring at a screen on any sunny day. But, since I am trying to make this blogationship with WordPress a success, today I am caving in. (On the bright side, I’m sitting in the courtyard just outside Mink, and there is a very talented girl playing a violin. So life isn’t totally unbearable.)

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At the start of July, Wilf and I took a week to explore California. Our first stop was San Francisco. We then made our way down to Monterey, and finally on to Yosemite Park. And while all three of these destinations could easily provide material for several blog posts (both in terms of activities and the wonderful relationship dynamics associated with said activities), I’m going to focus on our visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

As far as I know, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of only a few public aquariums in the world to house live bluefin tuna. And I don’t mean they have just a couple, they have a whole school. (For ecosystem variety’s sake, there are a few yellowfin tossed in there too.) These incredible fish were the primary reason we put Monterey on our agenda in the first place, and I can’t even describe how giddy I was to see them up-close and personal for the very first time. I didn’t sleep the night before and practically turned myself inside out while we waited in line for the aquarium to open. Once inside, I sprinted up the elevator to the Open Ocean tank (I’d scouted out its exact location on the map prior to entry). Given my rapid ascent to this exhibit, I was one of only a few people in the room. I must have looked like a six-year old girl as I pressed my face up against the giant floor-to-ceiling glass, hypnotized by the beautiful fish on the other side. I can’t really do the whole experience justice with words, but on my list of best life experiences, this one easily ranks near the top.

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Wilf was incredibly patient while I got my tuna fix, and I think we spent close to an hour by the Open Ocean tank before I felt like I could tear myself away to see some other marine life. After the tuna, we explored the jellyfish and sea horse exhibits, saw the penguins and lots of other local and exotic fishes, and the sea otters (which, in Monterey, are actually pretty nasty despite their angelic faces and prominent role as the town’s poster children). We then went back to the tuna and watched their morning feeding. (We were probably the only two people in the place who found it funny when they announced that they had to move the “slower animals”—a green sea turtle— out of the way prior to feeding the speedy tuna.) It was incredible and I felt so lucky to have the chance to see it live.

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Now skip ahead a month to last night. We went and saw the documentary Blackfish. Despite the fact that the take home message was no secret from the outset, it was still a hard film to watch for several reasons. And it hit home on a very personal level. I’m not going to reiterate all the details of Tilikum’s story, but I will give my two cents worth on orcas in captivity and my current thoughts on the role of aquariums.

This is a serious issue for me, and one that I have put considerable thought into for a large part of my life. Luckily, as a scientist, I’m not afraid to change my opinions based on additional facts and information. And over the last decade, I have become uneasy with the entertainment side of aquariums. While I absolutely think aquariums are necessary in today’s society and that having cetaceans on display can still provide an immense educational experience, I don’t think we need facilities that showcase animals through fancy tricks and music. In my opinion, seeing a person in spandex ride an orca is not only completely unnatural but it also has zero educational value. This kind of behaviour only encourages a message of human dominance and supremacy, which ultimately shows a complete lack of respect and understanding of the intelligence and power of these incredible animals. Conversely, places like the Vancouver Aquarium, which focus their efforts on education and conservation, as well as the rehabilitation (and release whenever possible) of injured or stranded marine mammals should continue to hold a valuable place in our society. Fundamentally I don’t believe that keeping whales—or any animal— in captivity is innately cruel. It’s just different. And as long as zoos and aquariums are held accountable at the highest possible standards in veterinary care and husbandry, then I think they provide important opportunities for people to learn about wildlife, and the impacts people have on the environment in which these animals live in the wild.

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I’ve been to several aquariums around the world (six continent’s worth), and the ones in Vancouver and Monterey are among the best I’ve seen. Despite the fact that in the 1970s, Monterey’s sardine fishery was in complete collapse and the surrounding marine ecosystem was in rough shape, protective legislation and proper fisheries management policies led to the re-establishment of healthy fishable sardine stocks, a protected national marine sanctuary where wildlife is undisturbed and people can enjoy marine activities, and an aquarium. Unlike the Vancouver Aquarium, they have no whales— in fact, I think the otters are their only mammals. But really, that’s not important because they display the creatures they do have in a way that is both interesting and meaningful. The Monterey Bay Aquarium focuses heavily on marine education and awareness through a variety of interactive media, from posters to videos to art to games to tidal pool snorkelling. They want people to care about and feel connected to the ocean and its creatures, both big and small. And, given the town’s difficult history combined with its natural beauty, Wilf and I both agreed that it is the aquarium’s location above all that subtly reinforces the notion that people and marine life can not only co-exist, but prosper. This was a very beautiful and inspiring concept; a proper example of why we need aquariums in the world.

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