I met Gasper when visiting the Georgia Aquarium in 2006. The aquarium had just opened that fall and the buzz about the facility around Atlanta was still going strong in the spring. So one hot afternoon I made my way downtown to see it for myself.
I followed hoards of people past the entrance into the soaring main pavilion with a café, gift shop, and general sitting area. The exhibits encircled the pavilion with catchy signs such as “Tropical Diver” and “River Scout.” I remember thinking how much the experience reminded me of a theme park as I continued with the masses into the “Cold Water Quest” exhibit.
The exhibit’s main attractions were the Beluga whales. Like watery ghosts, they swam gracefully around their enclosure. All except for one, that is. While the other whales were sleek and muscular, Gasper looked as though he was wasting away. Deep crevices lined his body, and his skin was marked with lesions. The aquarium employee manning the exhibit was apologetic for Gasper’s poor appearance.
Gasper and Nico, another Beluga in the exhibit, had been rescued seven months earlier from the LaFeria de Chapultepec theme park in Mexico City, she explained. Their enclosure had not been sufficient to house them and was encircled by a large wooden roller coaster. Gasper’s condition could be the result of the stress he endured during his chaotic life in Mexico.
Eight months after my visit, 17-year-old Gasper was dead. He had eventually been diagnosed with a bone infection and was not responding well to treatment. The aquarium staff made the decision to euthanize him. Another Beluga, Marina, died less than a year later at the same facility apparently at the ripe old age of 25 (NOAA Fisheries claim that belugas may live to 60 years old).
Working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), I have learned a lot more about the plight of marine mammals in captivity. Behind their perma-grins, captive whales and dolphins suffer in silence. Many endured traumatic captures while being ripped away from their wild pods. Others endure severe and persistent stress due to constant forced human interaction and public performances.
Public display facilities often promote their activities under the guise of conservation, education and research but most do not stray far from P.T. Barnum’s original purpose for the exhibition of whales*—to draw paying crowds. A recent report, “Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity,” co-produced by WSPA and The Humane Society of the United States explores this important issue in-depth.
I often wonder if life would have been different for Gasper had he been left in the wild. Would he have fallen ill if he had not endured the stress of transport to Mexico, a decade living under a roller coaster and subsequent transport to Georgia? We will never know. But as long as the public demands to be entertained by these creatures there is little that can be done to sway the captive display industries from obtaining more animals. Until then, I urge compassionate travelers to enjoy these complex and intelligent creatures unfettered in their natural environment. Wildlife watching is a growing multi-billion dollar industry that offers travelers the thrilling opportunity to discover animals in their natural habitats. Learn more about guidelines for responsible marine wildlife watching on the WSPA website.
Nearly 150 years ago, some of the first Belugas were brought into captivity by the famous P.T. Barnum. He enlisted 35 men to capture two whales from the Labrador Coast and proudly displayed them in seven feet of sea water in his American Museum.