Mom And Daughter Beluga Whales Die Days Apart At Aquarium

RIP, Aurora and Qila.

Aurora, a 29-year-old beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium, died on Friday, just nine days after her daughter, Qila.

She was the last surviving beluga whale at the aquarium.

"After a determined around-the-clock effort by animal care staff and the veterinary team, she slipped away this evening surrounded by the people who loved her, some whom have cared for her since she first arrived in 1990," the aquarium wrote on Facebook. "To our team, Aurora was a part of our family and her loss is absolutely heartbreaking. The marine mammal care team working night and day to care for her are our true heroes, even if we lost the battle."

Lance Barrett-Lennard, the head of the aquarium's cetacean research program, said on Saturday that "the aquarium family is devastated, I think a lot of people in the city are devastated."

Aurora had been ill for a week, showing symptoms of stomach pains and little appetite. Qila, who was 21 years old, died after experiencing many of the same symptoms.

But some people aren't so surprised by the sad passing of Aurora and her daughter.

"As we have noted for years now, belugas do not fare well in captivity," Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), told The Dodo. "These Vancouver deaths are not unusual, unfortunately - belugas do not breed well and often die young in captivity. Both Aurora and Qila were less than 30 years of age, which is middle-aged for free-ranging belugas."

In the wild, beluga whales - who are highly social and like to dive a thousand feet or more to eat their meals - can live to be 50 years old. Belugas in captivity tend to die before reaching 30.

In the wild, however, beluga whales face different kinds of threats to their well-being and survival. Because they tend to gather along coasts, pollution and offshore oil drilling put the animals at risk.

Aurora was captured in the wild and arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1990. She gave birth to three calves while in captivity, all of whom died before her. Qila survived longest, whereas Tuvaq died at age 3 and Nala at age 1.

Qila had a calf in 2008, who died just three years later.

"No matter how you feel personally about marine mammals in captivity, I defy anybody to contradict me on the reason that we have them," Barrett-Lennard said. "We have them to serve as animals ambassadors - to inculcate a stewardship ethic and a care about these animals in the wild."

But Rose believes the recent deaths should shape the future of the aquarium.

"The Vancouver Aquarium should reconsider its plans to expand its cetacean enclosures and instead phase out the exhibition of these species," she said. "It should follow the example of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which is planning to build a natural sanctuary and retire its eight bottlenose dolphins. The 21st century is no place for captive cetaceans."

To learn what you can do to help beluga whales, click here.