Beluga Whale Dies at Mystic Aquarium After Controversial Transport

Transport puts strain on cetaceans.

A beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut.
A beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut.

Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

On August 6, Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut made a tragic announcement on its Instagram account: A male beluga whale who had arrived at the facility in May had died that morning. 

“This is a devastating loss for our staff and for the community, especially the animal care team who works closely with the belugas,” the aquarium wrote.

But the circumstances around the death raised questions from animal welfare groups who say the whale, named Havok, never should have come to Mystic in the first place. 

“This whale should not have died,” Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), tells Treehugger. 

Questionable Moves

Havok was one of five beluga whales that had been imported from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Canada to Mystic Aquarium for research. AWI and around 14 other groups originally opposed the import because the Marineland whales had either been captured in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk or were descended from these captured whales.

The stock of whales in this region is considered depleted, which means they cannot be imported for public display in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Mystic had sought an exemption for research purposes, but AWI thought it would send the wrong message to Russians who participate in the capture and trade of these animals. 

“We had very strong objections, because in our opinion this trade, this transfer of animals, from Marineland to Mystic, is an encouragement to trade in a depleted stock,” Rose says. 

However, the group chose not to fight the transfer further when the Department of Commerce put important conditions on the permit it issued in September of last year: The imported belugas could not be bred, and they could not be trained to perform.

“We could live with that,” Rose explains. 

The Instagram announcement of Havok’s death, however, raised new questions for Rose about whether or not the whale should have been moved. The aquarium said the whale had a preexisting gastrointestinal condition when it arrived at the facility. 

This shocked Rose because when Mystic originally imported the five whales, it had to replace three of them because of health concerns. Havok, it turns out, was one of these replacement whales. 

“Why did Mystic import him if he had this preexisting condition, especially if they were replacing three unhealthy whales?” she asks. 

To put Rose’s concerns in context, it’s important to understand the strain that transport puts on cetaceans. The process raises the animals’ stress hormones, weakening their immune systems and making them more susceptible to infections. In fact, their mortality risk increases by a factor of six or seven in the first week after transport. After around 40 days, that risk returns to baseline levels, but if a whale dies within a year of a move, the move is likely a contributing factor, Rose says. 

Before this incident, Rose says she had no particular “axe to grind” with Mystic, which is a nonprofit that does do valuable research, including some of the research she cites about the stress of transport itself. However, the incident has left her with questions about the aquarium, including the true health of the other imported whales.

“I feel like something very, very bad happened here, and I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know why it happened, and I want to know,” she says.

Worth the Risk? 

In a statement about the death emailed to Treehugger, Mystic said it was aware Havok had gastric ulcers at the time of his transport, but his condition was under control and he was stable at the time of the move. Further, the transport was cleared by veterinary attendants and government agencies on both sides of the border. 

Havok’s exact cause of death is not yet known and is currently being investigated at the University of Connecticut. At the same time, the aquarium is monitoring the other imported whales, who it says are currently healthy. 

“The information we have indicates that this is an isolated situation and that none of the other whales have had their health impacted,” the aquarium maintains. 

In response to more specific concerns about the transport itself, Mystic interim director of public relations Daniel Pesquera tells Treehugger it went through a thorough permitting process that determined it was justified so that the aquarium could conduct “urgently needed research to save endangered populations of belugas.”

“We acknowledge that there were many challenges at Marineland with their beluga whales,” Pesquera adds. “Our staff, attending veterinarians, and agencies from both governments were present throughout the entire transport process, and were extremely vigilant in making sure that the belugas we were bringing to Mystic were safe for transport.”

Further, Pesquera argues Mystic could provide the whales with a better standard of care than any other similar facility in the world. 

“For these whales, born under human care, this move was the best possible scenario in terms of quality of life,” he says.

Rose, however, voices a different perspective. While she acknowledges Marineland “is not a great place,” she does not believe it is sufficiently bad to justify the risks of transport to anywhere but a sanctuary. 

“The risks are never worth the costs when they’re going from one tank to another,” she says.

Instead, she argues Mystic should have conducted the research at Marineland, and the whales should have stayed in Canada where they could have eventually been relocated to the Whale Sanctuary Project she and others are working to build in Nova Scotia. 

‘The Future We See’

In response to this incident, the AWI and other concerned groups are calling for a federal investigation into the circumstances of Havok’s transport. Rose says there are also plans to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the health certificate that enabled the move. 

However, while Havok’s death sparked very particular concerns for Rose, it is also an example of why she and the AWI ultimately oppose the captivity and display of whales and dolphins. 

“The future we see is ending the breeding of all of the captive cetaceans so that the generation that’s in captivity right now is the last,” she says. 

This would be a three-step process: 

  1. Expanding bans on breeding captive cetaceans, like the law against Orca breeding that passed in California in 2016
  2. Re-releasing captured animals into the wild. Five bottlenose dolphins captured and then returned to their native habitat in Korea are still thriving, for example
  3. Ending all public shows for captive-born cetaceans, and eventually transferring as many of them as possible to sanctuaries.

Rose argues that any necessary research could be done in these sanctuaries, which would have conditions that are closer to nature. Further, while the phase-out is in progress, the former amusement parks could reinvent their shows using animatronics, CGI, or virtual reality animals. 

“That actually gives the industry a lot of time to transition their business,” she says.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that Rose wanted to move all currently captive whales and dolphins to sanctuaries. In fact, she acknowledges that this will not be possible in every case and says that those who remain where they are can have their conditions improved with enrichment. The language has been changed to reflect this.

View Article Sources
  1. "Marine Mammal Protection Act." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.