One Dolphin’s Story: Chester

Quick Facts

Born: 2014 (estimated)
Stranded: July 10, 2014, Tofino, British Columbia, Canada
Status: Captive at the Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, British Columbia

On July 10, 2014, a young, male false killer whale stranded in Tofino, British Columbia. The youngster, deemed to be 4-6 weeks old was still nursing, and was alone, injured and emaciated.

Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue team were all on scene that day, attending to the stranded mammal. According to the Vancouver Aquarium’s official statement, a transport license was issued immediately by DFO, with the decision made to transport the dolphin to the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Center for rehabilitation. Chester, as the false killer whale was later named, spent the next 10 months away from public view, where he received more than 10,000 hours of veterinary treatment, rehabilitation and care.

On May 26, 2015, the Vancouver Aquarium issued a statement via a panel of experts assembled by DFO. After performing a thorough evaluation of Chester’s recovery, along with an assessment of his long-term needs, the dolphin had been deemed non-releasable and would be staying permanently at the aquarium. In part, the decision was based on the mammal’s age, his lack of survival and foraging skills as well as his extensive contact with humans.

Chester, captive false killer whale, Vancouver Aquarium, British Columbia, Canada

Chester, captive false killer whale, Vancouver Aquarium, British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Ivana Grubisic / Dolphin Project

The decision couldn’t have worked out better for the Vancouver Aquarium.

If this animal goes to [the] Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue center and survives, it would not be released back to the wild because of its age. It would become a captive animal.” ~ Paul Cottrell, Marine Mammal Coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)*
*Source: email dated July 10, 2014

Chester had just made history as being the first false killer whale to be rehabilitated under human care. Plus, given his age and condition at the time of stranding, he was deemed unreleasable from the get-go, by both DFO and the aquarium. While the names of the panel scientists were never publicly disclosed, it’s quite possible their ‘votes’ may have been pre-determined. Given Cottrell’s comments, why, if the decision had been made to never release Chester, did it take a full ten months for the two parties to publicly announce this conclusion? And why did Vancouver Aquarium officials claim they had nothing to do with this decision when their Staff Veterinarian, Dr. Martin Haulena was asked to provide an assessment to determine Chester’s suitability for captivity?

In any case, Chester wasn’t going anywhere, and ultimately, should his rehabilitation be successful, would be added to the aquarium’s roster of performing animals.

Today, three years after he stranded, Chester, now fully recovered from his traumatic ordeal, lives in a barren, concrete tank, devoid of anything that resembles his wild habitat. He shares his tank with Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin that the aquarium bought from Enoshima Aquarium in Japan – a facility known for sourcing its captive entertainment from the notorious drive hunts in Taiji. And while the two mammals share their “living” space, their behavior towards one another is tolerant at best.

Chester, captive false killer whale, Vancouver Aquarium, British Columbia, Canada

Chester, captive false killer whale, Vancouver Aquarium, British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Ivana Grubisic / Dolphin Project

Every day is groundhog day for Chester. Two times per day he participates in shows where he performs a few learned tricks for a reward of dead fish. For the remainder of the day he’s either swimming in endless circles around the periphery of the tank or demonstrating repetitive behaviors, common amongst captive animals due to boredom and stress. Without his own kind to learn, and to seek support from, Chester often clings to a buoy – for hours.

A growing mass of people are skeptical about the real intentions of dolphinaria purporting to run whale and dolphin rescue and rehabilitation programs. There’s a very real conflict of interest here as the rescue of whales and dolphins by the captivity industry may be for reasons other than the well-being of the individual animal.” ~ Stephen Marsh, Operations Manager for British Divers Marine Life Rescue

While Chester was “saved” in a generalized sense, what did his rehabilitation cost him? And to what end? Are dolphinariums such as the Vancouver Aquarium using rescues as a justification to plump up their captive performing stocks? Or was the aquarium sincere in their efforts, despite never intending for the dolphin to be released back into the wild. If such facilities are actually earnest in their intentions, why not build proper retirement centers, where unreleasable dolphins and other marine mammals could retire away from the public spotlight, and in a more natural and nurturing environment?

Ric O’Barry and his team at Dolphin Project have been rehabilitating and releasing previously captive dolphins for decades. O’Barry created the world’s first Protocol for Releasing Captive Dolphins, which has been used successfully by teams across the world in their efforts to return dolphins back to the ocean.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, a mammal’s well-being should not stop upon their successful rehabilitation. Rather, concerns for their mental, physical and emotional wellness should continue throughout their lifetimes. Instead of turning them into caricatures of their former selves, why not provide for as natural a life as possible? Sadly, in the case of Chester, he will continue to suffer as a result of Canada’s unregulated and deeply-flawed system. Change will only come if decisions regarding stranded marine mammals are made by a neutral body, not one associated with an aquarium where profits are to be made off the backs of these sentient mammals.

There is hope for the captive marine mammals held at the Vancouver Aquarium. On May 15, 2017, the Vancouver Park Board voted in favor of banning any new cetaceans from being kept in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. Under the revised bylaw, “…no person shall produce or present in a park show, performance, or other form of entertainment which includes one or more cetaceans.”*
*Source: CTV News Vancouver, 5/15/17

The two cetaceans currently at the facility, including Chester will be allowed to stay, but will no longer perform or be a part of shows. It’s a move in the right direction, but the mammals deserve more – much, much more. Predictably, the aquarium has launched a legal challenge to overturn the ban.

Resources

Research Document – 2004/122, Marine mammals and “wildlife rehabilitation” programs

DFO – Pacific Marine Mammal & Sea Turtle Reference Manual: A guide to sightings, strandings (incidents), legislation, licencing and species identification

Release Was Never Considered for Rescued Whale at Vancouver Aquarium, Despite Claims

Vancouver Aquarium to Provide Long-Term Care to False Killer Whale Chester

EXCLUSIVE: Self-Mutilation by a Young Whale at Vancouver Aquarium

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Author: Ivana Grubisic
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