Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hello, Goodbye

Aurora and Qila
Aurora, Vancouver's beloved 30 year old beluga has died and this marks the end of a tragic era for the captive belugas in the Vancouver Aquarium. Less than two weeks earlier Qila, Aurora's first born, and the first beluga ever born in captivity, also died and she was only 21. In 2010 another of Aurora's children born in captivity, Nala, died at the age of one. There was another of Qila's siblings born in captivity named Tuvaq but he died in 1995 at the age of three and Qila's own daughter Tiqa, granddaughter of Aurora, also born in captivity, died in 2011 at the age of three.

Other Vancouver Aquarium belugas include; Kavna, who died in 2012 at the age of 46 after being here since 1976. Already pregnant when she arrived, she gave birth to a calf named Tuaq who only lived for a few months. There was also Nanuq, the father of Qila, who died in 2015 at the age of 31 while on a breeding loan to the infamous SeaWorld. Nanuq also fathered three other belugas, Grayson, Qinu, and Atla who are on loan to other American aquariums. Imaq, the father of Tuvaq and Nala is still alive but is on a breeding loan to SeaWorld.  Finally there is Allua, who was never able to conceive while living in Vancouver, and who is now also on a breeding loan to SeaWorld. I'm sure some of these five remaining belugas will be returning to Vancouver to take up residence in the now empty beluga pool.

Beluga pool at Vancouver Aquarium
In 1976 Kavna was captured in the waters near Churchill Manitoba as was Allua in 1985 and Aurora in 1990 but after 1996 this practise was stopped and the Vancouver Aquarium has since embarked on a captive breeding program to supply it with whales for what it euphemistically calls "research & education" programs. While the belugas undoubtedly delight audiences with their antics and beguiling facial expressions, and are the love of their trainers and handlers, it's all to easy to ignore the fact these poor creatures are being held prisoner. Watching the whales "pacing" about in their repetitious swimming patterns clearly illustrates that no matter how ambitious the Aquarium's plans are for bigger whale pools they will never be big enough to give the animals enough room to freely swim about. I have more room when I swim in the Aquatic Centre or Kits Pool never mind out in English Bay and I'm certainly no whale.

Belugas in Churchill
There's a disturbing pattern emerging here that clearly illustrates beluga whales (or any other whales for that matter) do not last long in aquariums and we should be putting an end to these breeding programs. It's one thing to look after an injured cetacean and keep them in captivity if they can't be rehabilitated but it's not okay to deliberately bring them into the world and keep them in captivity just for our own amusement.  These are extremely intelligent, sociable creatures, and they belong in the wild.  If we really care about them we would concentrate on preserving their natural habitat not creating an artificial one. It's time we said hello to them in the wild and goodbye to them in captivity.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hot Fun In The Summertime

Crystal Serenity 
Whether or not you believe the earth is warming and whether or not that's a good or a bad thing, there's no denying the ice has been melting enough lately to allow ships to transit the Northwest Passage and this summer saw the largest ship yet to make the journey. Following a route that would have made Sir John Franklin green with envy, not to mention this writer, the Crystal Serenity took 900 passengers from Seward, Alaska all the way to New York City with stops along the way in Greenland and Baffin Island and other Canadian outposts. Though the price started at $20,000.00 per person it was by all accounts a stunning success with unbelievable scenery, wildlife encounters and a cultural experience all rolled into the 32 day cruise.

Of course as any dinosaur fan would know the earth was much warmer in the old days (colder as well) and, during the Jurassic period, some 150 million years ago, most of the earth was covered in a lush rain forest. Times were certainly changing in those days with the single land mass known as Pangaea splitting into Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south. There were no polar ice caps at either end and ships would have been free to transit the north without worrying about encountering any icebergs. Of course the passengers wouldn't have seen any polar bears either.

Continental formations prior to the Jurassic period

Nelson & the dinosaurs at the ROM
Whether the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid hitting the earth, or the volcanic eruptions that were creating havoc everywhere, they certainly wouldn't have survived either the ice age that preceded them or the last one that came along afterwards and only ended 11,000 years ago. The earth's climate has been undergoing some very severe fluctuations over the ages and, as the sun continues to brighten, it will probably continue to do so.

Since the last ice age the planet has gone through half a dozen periods of warming and cooling and, if Franklin would have timed things better, he too might have been able to get through. During the.Medieval "warm period" Vikings under Eric the Red came to Greenland and established settlements that lasted until the 15th century and the onset of the "little ice age". Trees and various herbaceous plants flourished there and the Norsemen were even able to grow barley.and raise livestock. They shared the land with the Dorset who were the original inhabitants and then later the Thule Inuit who settled all of what is now Alaska and Northern Canada.

Norse ruins in Greenland
Until the start of the "little ice age" the waters of the high arctic were free of pack ice in the summer months which made it possible to hunt whales, particularly the bowhead whale, a slow swimming animal that sleeps near the water's surface. Fish, other sea mammals and caribou were also important food sources for the Thule but it was the bowhead whale whose summer range expanded from the Bering Sea to the Beaufort Sea and the Canadian Archipelago that really provided the most bang for the buck. With global cooling this all changed and the Thule communities were broken up as people were forced further south and had to rely on other hunting strategies.

Revival of the bowhead whale hunt for Inuit people
Commercial whaling in the 19th century nearly wiped out the bowhead whale population but, since 1972 when all commercial whaling was outlawed, the species has since recovered and the Inuit are now permitted to have a limited hunt as part of their traditional culture. Melting ice may or may not make things more difficult for the polar bear but it might also help revive the Inuit way of life and improve things for other creatures that cruise the arctic waters. Slightly warmer waters may also improve fish stocks such as cod and herring.

Polar bear on an ice flow off Baffin Island
The dead dinosaurs and vegetation lying buried in the Canadian soil are what formed our oil sands, and have since been identified as one of the world's largest petroleum reserves. With the retreat of the glaciers and the end of the ice age, these oil sands are now able to be exploited and they form the basis of our oil & gas industry. In addition to being able to navigate our northern waters there's another potential upside to global warming for Canadians as this could make more of the country available for agriculture and habitation. As the world's second largest country but also having one of the lowest population densities, we certainly have plenty of room for all those fleeing the tropics.

Air & sea temperatures in Cambridge Bay
For all the talk about global warming we need to remember that for 9 months of the year the area around the Northwest Passage is frozen solid. Birds fly south, bears hibernate and everyone else does their best to just try and keep warm. It's dark all day and night and the only way to get around is by ski-do, snowshoe or airplane. But come summertime things change radically as things heat up, the ice starts to melt and it becomes the land of the midnight sun. With the open water beckoning it's hot fun in the summertime once again and a chance for others to check out life in the true north.

Canadian icebreaker