Young female beluga whale Tiqa died early Friday at the Vancouver Aquarium after suffering an infection — and the death appears unconnected to an overnight break-in.
Vancouver police department Const. Janna McGuiness said there is no evidence linking the break-in at about 4:30 a.m. to the death of the three-year-old beluga just over an hour later.
“This appears to be an unrelated incident,” McGuiness told reporters. “But we’ll just make sure we take every precaution and do a thorough investigation.”
Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale said that staff monitoring Tiqa’s condition through the night saw a man climb over the wall of the beluga enclosure and challenged the intruder, who climbed back over the wall and ran away.
“So it was very quick,” added Nightingale, saying that no contact was witnessed between the dying beluga and the trespasser.
Tiqa is the third young beluga whale to die at the aquarium in the past six years. In 2010 calf Nala died just two weeks after her first birthday after her airway became blocked, and in 2005 Tuvaq died at the age of three from heart arrhythmia.
Nightingale has instructed his medical staff to find out whether there any links between the three deaths, and to consult with international experts.
“We simply have to get to the bottom of what’s gone on,” he said.
Clint Wright, the aquarium’s vice-president of operations and animal management, said Tiqa had a “mild sickness” over the previous 10 days and was not eating regularly.
Tiqa’s blood test results had appeared normal through the illness but “[on Thursday] we saw a dramatic change in the blood. Certainly, it looked like she got an infection.”
Tiqa was placed under a 24-hour watch and staff members monitoring her behaviour early Friday morning noticed the beluga wasn’t “acting quite right,” added Wright. The whale died at 5:45 a.m.
The carcass was taken to the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Health Care Centre to undergo a full necropsy by veterinarians Dr. Martin Haulena and Dr. Stephen Raverty.
Nightingale said that despite the tragedy, the aquarium plans to operate a beluga breeding program after the aquarium’s current expansion project is completed, adding that the death of young belugas is not unusual, and about 50 per cent of beluga calves in the wild die young.
He said that belugas, unlike orca killer whales, adapt well to life in aquariums. “If the killer whale is the Ferrari of the whale world, the beluga whale is the Volkswagen bus,” said Nightingale. “They are a putter-around whale and are pretty ideally suited to living in an aquarium.”
Vancouver animal rights activist Peter Hamilton said belugas should not be kept in captivity at the aquarium because it lacks natural flora and fauna. “These animals born in captivity are still naturally wild.”