No Whales? Maybe Walruses?

The Vancouver Aquarium gave itself a wonderful Christmas present this year. Young walruses, Lakina and Balzac, arrived just in time this December.

The aquarium and the newspapers are ecstatic about it, but we should think twice about this surprise arrival. Whether the walruses like it or not, they will be VanAq stand-ins for a long line of orcas, porpoises, and beluga stars. They will have major roles as the next generation of trophies.

Young walrus, Vancouver, aquarkum
Vancouver Staff with new walrus, Dec 2017

Walrus calves are rare. They are extremely uncommon in aquariums. Lakina and Balzak are the 7th and 8th calves born in North American aquariums in the last 90 years! (1). Only 19 other captive cows have gestated in all that time, and none of the calves survived more than a year. Lakina and Balzac are a year and a half old now, so are very special indeed.

Any problem with these new walruses, of course, would be tragic for VanAq. The preceding year was disastrous there. Four cetaceans died: porpoise, Daisy; two belugas, Aurora and Quila; and the ‘false killer whale’, Chester. Finally, that year, after years of public conflict, the Vancouver Parks Board prohibited cetaceans at the aquarium.

The only good news for the VanAq that year was the arrival of the two walruses.

VanAq has attracted more than a million visitors a year, and the cetaceans were crucial in that popularity. Now the walruses will literally take the place of the cetaceans, in the pools and in the public imagination. They will be the new attraction for visitors.

When exactly VanAq began to negotiate with Quebec for the walruses is not entirely clear. Long before then, though, VanAq, had a renovation plan which was very precise indeed. Part of the “Expansion Masterplan” of 2014-16, outlined by Grout McTavish Architects, clearly expected cetaceans. Dolphin and beluga pools are the dominant feature (upper right, lower left) in the ambitious plan below.

Vancouver Aquarium Development Plan

There will be no more cetaceans at VanAq, however, so the earlier plan was doomed. But then, suddenly, walruses were possible. But, can walruses endure as a replacement for the cetaceans? Even with the extensive renovations, VanAq facilities are painfully inadequate. Most obviously, walruses are enormous animals and the ponds are tiny. Balzac, the larger male, could grow up to 4,400 lbs. Quebec relocated these two calves because they desperately needed the space.

Walruses.

Perhaps less conspicuous to a visitor, Walruses migrate thousands of miles during breeding. They have families. They are active and effective communicators.

But why are walruses such a great treasure for the aquarium? Pretty much the same reasons that most animals are in any zoo.

Simply put, they are living trophies rather than a collection of animals. We are all enthralled. Like other animals, walruses are physically intriguing. They have the aura of a whale or an elephant or an alligator, and we get to see them only in zoos.

3AB3FA2B-A665-4844-ABD9-4F3B1B2F08EEThe value of a ‘trophy’ is increased if it is scarce. For example, there are apparently only 12 existing white alligators known, so they’re a very special addition to any zoo. Similarly, the population of walruses is very rare in some places. They are, for example, on the edge of extinction in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Their plight is often due to human intervention. Hunters began the extermination first with mass slaughters, and now climate change is continuing the process.

VanAq became a major trophy hall very early. In 1964, 8 years after the facility opened, they caught and displayed Moby Doll, the second killer whale in captivity. The first, Wanda, died only 2 days after capture; Moby Doll lived about 3 months and often is considered first.  A constant stream of cetaceans followed, until Vancouver Parks Board stopped aggressively collecting in 2016.

Trophy hunting continues at VanAq. It is ominous that, until very recently, belugas were a grand trophy at VanAq. The last two, Aurora and Qila, died there in November 2016. Unfortunately, belugas are a designated ‘endangered’ species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The belugas are strange, like apparbeautiful animals, enthralling for all of us, for the public, and the presentation provided by VanAq, depends on the fragility of the species. The Atlantic Walrus,  which previously gave birth in that same St Lawrence Gulf, was entirely extirpated by hunters.

We should keep in mind that the beluga or the walrus we actually see may not be directly, specifically, from the endangered site. For example, the father of these two walruses, Boris, is from Russia where the walrus is not now literally endangered. However, even if that elephant, rhinoceros, or quagga is not individually at local hazard, the species may be. For example, global orca species may not be at risk, but the local South Salish Sea resident pods are definitely. Walruses and belugas are equally emblems, or trophies, of a species in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, these two young walruses are becoming part of a continuing, living line of aquatic trophies that VanAq has created—and has been proud of.

1. https://thewalrus.ca/walrus-baby-boom/

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