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Lonely Aquarium Dolphin Just Lost Her Only Friend

Her tank mate was the fifth whale or dolphin to die there this year — now she's the only one left 💔

After her tank mate died last week, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen is now the only surviving cetacean left at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Chester, the 3-year-old false killer whale who was Helen’s companion for over two years, died on Nov. 24 after falling ill just two days earlier. A necropsy report filed through the aquarium veterinary team states that he likely succumbed to a bacterial disease.

“It is with a deep sadness that we share the devastating loss of Chester early this morning,” the aquarium wrote on Facebook that day. “He was surrounded by his family and was kept very comfortable.”

lonely dolphin vancouver aquarium
Helen (left) and Chester in February 2017 | Analise Zocher / Flickr

Chester’s death is just the latest in a long string of deaths at the controversial aquarium — five cetaceans have died there in the past year and a half. Last June, Daisy the harbour porpoise died, and in November 2016, mother-and-daughter belugas Aurora and Qila died nine days apart — reportedly from a mysterious toxic substance that had been passed to them through water, food or human interference. Jack, another harbour porpoise, died in August 2016.

Helen and Chester, the aquarium’s last cetaceans, had been companions for the past two years, and are shown in videos never wandering too far away from one another. On a daily basis, the wild-born, rescued dolphins were made to perform tricks in shows together to entertain paying guests.

Helen, who is around 30 years old, was brought to the aquarium in 2005 after being found in fishing nets in Japan several years earlier; Chester was brought to the aquarium as a calf in 2014 after being found near a beach in critical condition. Both of them were unreleasable, according to the aquarium.

But now that Helen is alone in her tank, she faces an even bleaker future than most captive whales and dolphins — and many people are questioning whether the aquarium can keep her psychologically healthy.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), said the most difficult challenge Helen now faces is simply not being with other dolphins.

“Dolphins are the most highly social of all the cetaceans — Pacific white-sided dolphins can be found in pods of hundreds, even thousands, in the wild,” Rose told The Dodo. “Being completely solitary is undoubtedly very difficult psychologically. Negative emotional and psychological well-being can have negative physical impacts, for all mammals.”

Since Chester’s death, aquarium officials said they are increasing the amount of human interaction and enrichment activities that Helen gets in efforts to keep her mentally stimulated.

However, Rose said this is not quite enough.

“Helen will benefit to some degree from interactions with her human caretakers, but to suggest that this is sufficient to ensure the emotional well-being of such a social species is very self-serving,” Rose said. “Humans are lousy cetaceans and cetaceans are not domesticated animals, bred to be our companions. We do not understand each other well enough for our interactions with them to substitute for those of other dolphins.”

In May, the Vancouver Park Board approved a new ban on the importation or display of cetaceans in city parks, including Stanley Park where Vancouver Aquarium is located — meaning that the aquarium would not be permitted to add any more animals to its current tanks. But the aquarium challenged the ban in the B.C. Supreme Court, requesting a judicial review of the measure.

The aquarium claims the ban would hinder its efforts to rescue wild cetaceans, arguing that its goal is to rehabilitate and return those animals to the wild. But critics point out that many of the aquarium’s rescued animals are kept and added to its display collection. That transition is extremely traumatizing for wild cetaceans, who frequently don’t survive the process.

“The whole reason Helen is alone now is because of how rarely rescued cetaceans actually survive being removed from the beach and rehabilitated in a tank somewhere,” Rose added.

Some people are also concerned that removing the ban would open the field for facilities to breed more captive cetaceans — while Vancouver Aquarium states it’s not involved in breeding, it was implicated in a 2012 effort by SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild belugas from Russia to jumpstart a North American captive breeding program. It has also sent several cetaceans to SeaWorld parks on apparent breeding loans.

Unfortunately, there aren’t currently any sanctuary facilities specifically for cetaceans, but Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoocheck, said she believes Helen would do best if she were at least transferred to a facility where she could live among other dolphins.

And, while it’s unclear if Vancouver Aquarium would ever voluntarily give her up, there may soon be a place where she could retire in peace and live with others of their kind.

“There is a move to develop one by The Whale Sanctuary Project, which would provide a sea pen environment for the animals to live in that, at least, would provide them the option to live in the ocean,” Woodyer told The Dodo. “They would be able to dive deep, swim over longer distances and even communicate with wild cetaceans. Since there is no such facility currently, Helen should still be moved immediately to a facility that allows her to live with her own species — and no more cetaceans should come into the aquarium for permanent display.”

As aquariums continue to lose their cetaceans to illnesses and other complications associated with captivity, Rose, who also serves as a board member for the Whale Sanctuary Project, said many more animals will face the same lonely fate as Helen.

“This situation, where there is only one dolphin left in a facility, will happen more often as the captive display of cetaceans slowly disappears from our society as an outmoded practice,” Rose said. “Helen’s specific situation should be assessed by independent experts and objective decisions with her best interests — not of the aquarium’s — in mind should be made.”

The Vancouver Aquarium did not respond to a request for comment.

To help create a sanctuary for dolphins like Helen, you can make a donation to The Whale Sanctuary Project.