Tidal Shift: Vancouver Aquarium goes global

How John Nightingale transformed the Vancouver Aquarium from one that does conservation into "a global conservation organization that has an aquarium." While it faces mounting criticism at home for keeping and displaying cetaceans following the unexplained deaths of two beluga whales in November, the aquarium has found an eager global market for its expertise

Credit: Adam Blasberg

MAN OF THE SEA | John Nightingale, long-time CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, stands in front of a tank of Pacific sea nettles

How John Nightingale transformed the Vancouver Aquarium from one that does conservation into “a global conservation organization that has an aquarium”

One morning in September 2015, Dolf DeJong stopped at a popular tourist beach in the Alicante region of Spain. He saw hundreds and hundreds of people in street clothes and bathing suits milling about, television reporters roving the sand with cameras and microphones, and local police fencing off areas with yellow tape. He knew why they were there—to see a dozen loggerhead turtles head out to sea—but he couldn’t believe how many people came.

DeJong, general manager of the Vancouver Aquarium, was on his way to work at Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest aquarium. He was at the beginning of an eight-month secondment, helping a new team take over management of the aquarium in nearby Valencia—and on this day felt overdressed in his white collared shirt and trousers. But the fish-out-of-water feeling disappeared as he joined the staff of Oceanogràfic in a tent set up on the sand and listened as they explained to visitors how turtle eggs were rescued from these beaches, rife with hazards of dogs and oblivious humans, and taken to the aquarium where they were incubated and hatched. The turtles learned to swim and feed, and were now ready to fend for themselves.

Credit: Oceanogràfic

INTO THE WILD | DeJong holds a loggerhead turtle on a Spanish beach

DeJong picked up one of the creatures between his fingers and thumbs and carried it among the crowds, letting the visitors admire the delicate mosaic pattern on its shell and front flippers. Over and over, people said they had no idea that these turtles lived in the Mediterranean. “It was amazing to see how animal interactions transcend language,” he recalls. “I was an English-speaking person in Spain, but people fundamentally understood, OK, these turtles nest here, and they lay eggs, and we need to make sure it keeps happening for future generations. Those aren’t abstract concepts when you have a real turtle right in front of you.”

How one of Vancouver Aquarium’s leaders came to share a loggerhead turtle with Spanish beachgoers is a story that speaks to the venerable institution’s growing international influence and its ambitious mission. While it faces mounting criticism at home for keeping and displaying cetaceans following the unexplained deaths of two beluga whales in November, the aquarium has found an eager global market for its expertise.

In 2012, the Vancouver Aquarium was invited to join a partnership bidding on a contract to manage Oceanogràfic, a stunning architectural complex and one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations. The partnership won, and now Oceanogràfic is being remade using the Vancouver model—turning it from a theme park into a respected organization promoting ocean research and conservation.

“The question now is, what’s the next generation of aquariums?” says John Nightingale, the 69-year-old CEO of Vancouver Aquarium, as we chat in the lunchroom at its Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in September (see sidebar “To the Rescue”). “I think that’s where Vancouver is at the forefront. It’s not so much about the animals you keep; it’s about the public engagement and interest and curiosity and awareness that you can stimulate.”

Nightingale, who has led the aquarium since 1993, has had a lifelong interest and curiosity with the natural world. Born in rural Oregon, he grew up on a small farm with cows, chickens, geese and sheep, and ultimately pursued a PhD in salmon physiology at the University of Washington. Following graduation in 1974, he worked for three years at a big engineering firm that designed most of the fish hatcheries in North America as well as the Seattle Aquarium. Working in the fish hatcheries, he introduced more science-based methods of determining the food, oxygen and environmental needs of the fish. The aquarium, he felt, was also operating on a guesswork basis, not even keeping records of how much animals were eating and therefore unable to use appetite as a diagnostic tool.

“I was rather less diplomatic as a younger person than I am now,” he says. “I was pretty critical of aquarium practices. It was more like farming than any science-based care. So the director said, ‘You’re a real wise-ass—why don’t you come down here and practise what you preach.’ So I became the first curator of the Seattle Aquarium.”

After a few years at Seattle, Nightingale co-founded a design firm focusing on aquariums, zoos and museums. One of his clients gave the firm a $25-million budget to build the Maui Ocean Center, a tropical reef aquarium, which he would then lead as its director for three years. In 1990, he took a job as deputy director of the New York Aquarium, on Coney Island, before deciding to return to the West Coast as CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium.

Since taking the helm 23 years ago, Nightingale has turned the aquarium into the city’s top tourist destination, with more than one million people gazing into its dazzling tanks every year. Close to 150,000 schoolchildren throughout the province learn about aquatic life through aquarium visits, curriculum-based programs and the AquaVan mobile classroom. The work of its scientists in areas such as ocean contaminants and pollution, vulnerable species and habitats, and climate change impacts has been well-reported locally and achieved an international reputation. Long-established conservation efforts have engaged hundreds of thousands of people across the country—last year, 59,000 volunteers picked up garbage from waterways as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up, and 650 restaurants and retailers promoted sustainable seafood as part of the Ocean Wise program.

It also remains independent of government support: in 2015, half of the aquarium’s $37.5-million annual budget came from admissions, a third from its retail operations, and the rest from programs, grants and donations, and interest on investments. This is something not necessarily well understood. Nightingale grumbles that people often assume the aquarium is supported by government. (“Quite the opposite,” he says. “We give the city about a million dollars a year in parking fees.”)

The aquarium is, however, under the purview of the Vancouver Park Board as it sits on city-owned property in Stanley Park (adding a challenging political dynamic—see sidebar “Hot Waters”). It opened in June 1956 as the Vancouver Public Aquarium in an 830-square-metre facility, and Nightingale says it had an “unusual birth” for a cultural institution in that it had a clear vision from the start. The original founders—insurance salesman Carl Lietz, the school superintendent, a tourism official, some UBC professors, timber baron H.R. MacMillan and businessman George Cunningham—had the following goals: provide education; attract tourists; conduct original research; and operate financially independent of government. In the 1960s a fifth mandate was added: promote conservation of our natural world.

Leading up to the aquarium’s 60th anniversary, Nightingale and the board decided they needed to revisit that mission. The world has changed dramatically since the founders articulated their vision, and given that the current threats—overfishing, the impacts of coastal development, growing amounts of pollutants and contaminants and the effects of climate change—were bigger than Vancouver, a new mission had to reflect that. Nightingale describes it like this: “We are moving from being an aquarium that does conservation to being a global conservation organization that has an aquarium.”

The Vancouver Aquarium’s work with Oceanogràfic in Valencia—what Nightingale hopes will be the first of many partnerships, including one currently under discussion with an aquarium in Beijing—is a concrete example of this shift. Opened in 2003 and built for the equivalent of about $340 million, Oceanogràfic is part of an ambitious project called the City of Arts and Sciences, conceived and built by the city and the region of Valencia. It also includes an opera house, a cinesphere, a science museum and a large multi-use facility, located together in a former river bed. All of them were built to be architectural spectacles—Oceanogràfic, designed by Spanish-Mexican architect Felix Candela, features a stunning series of arcing concrete shells in the shape of a lily. At 1.2 million square feet, it is five times the size of the Vancouver Aquarium. Oceanogràfic was first managed by a Spanish theme-park firm. It was profitable, making the equivalent of $33 million in its first decade. But several years in, there were legal battles between the management and the City of Arts and Sciences involving breach-of-contract allegations. Then, the City decided that they wanted Oceanogràfic to be more than a tourist trap—they wanted it to promote ocean research and conservation.

Credit: Oceanogràfic

WATER LILY | The aquarium in Valencia was designed by architect Felix Candela and built for $340 million

Eduardo Nogués Meléndez is a former chief of engineering at the City of Valencia who worked on the development of the science museum and the aquarium. When the city announced that it would be requesting proposals to manage Oceanogràfic, he and several others decided they would find partners and submit a tender. In July 2012, he and a colleague visited about a dozen large aquariums across North America. They were looking for a partner with experience in managing a large portfolio of animals—Oceanogràfic has fishes, mammals, dolphins, whales, reptiles and other mammals. Vancouver Aquarium had all those, and something else.

“We were not looking for the biggest; we were looking for the smartest,” said Meléndez, on a break between lectures at the International Aquarium Conference hosted by the Vancouver Aquarium in September. “When we finished the tour, we said, ‘If they want, we want.’ Because they had a very clear orientation to mission while being on the other side very smart, efficient managers.”

Meléndez and his colleagues approached the Vancouver Aquarium with their proposal. They would be joint partners in the bid for a contract to manage all the operations of Oceanogràfic. “We told them, ‘We’re not in a position to put up any cash, because any extra cash goes into our programs,'” says Nightingale, “‘and we’re not in a position to take risk.'” The Aquarium, in the middle of its own $100-million physical expansion (which includes infrastructure updates, a new entrance pavilion and more spacious galleries) saw this partnership as a unique opportunity to grow its mission beyond its walls.

The Vancouver Aquarium agreed to contribute its management expertise, with COO Clint Wright and Dolf DeJong spending significant periods of time in Valencia; the other partners would be Ket Gestión, a management company co-founded by Meléndez, and Aguas de Valencia, a 125-year-old private family-owned water treatment utility. The three partners formed a firm called Avanqua (Vancouver has a 25 per cent stake; Aguas de Valencia, 57 per cent; and Ket Gestión, 18 per cent) and submitted what ended up being the winning bid. (The deal was structured so that Vancouver Aquarium did not put money up front, paying off its capital investment from a share of future dividends.)

The contract, which went into effect in August 2015, covers all aspects of running the institution: animal care, maintenance, cleaning, restoration, food and beverage, marketing, finance, communications, conservation, research and education. Meléndez explains that while theme parks are often controlled by hedge funds, which make speculative investments and demand quick returns, Aguas de Valencia has the capacity to make long-term investments. Fortified by this patient capital, Avanqua has committed to investing 25 million euros over the 15-year renewable contract, with a goal of increasing visitor numbers from 1.1 million to at least 1.3 million annually.

Meléndez, now deputy manager of Avanqua, points to several features of the reinvented Oceanogràfic that have been lifted straight from Vancouver. One of those was storytelling, both in the galleries and online. “I would say the tendency in Europe is a bit more old-fashioned,” he says. “How do you explain what you have to the public? In Vancouver you come and everybody has a microphone and they are very active and that is something that improves the visitor experience by far and it’s relatively cheap.” Oceanogràfic’s Arctic Gallery was now been “re-skinned,” with walls covered in text, photos and screen displays about the people and animals of the Arctic and the threats they face from climate change.

Other changes include the creation of La Fundación Oceanogràfic—a parallel nonprofit arm dedicated to research, conservation and outreach, which can solicit outside donors—and extended operational hours at Oceanogràfic. “In the first years, somebody was ashamed about doing weddings in the aquarium, because they said ‘This is not serious,'” explains Meléndez. “But in the end, what you want is money to do research and conservation. In this sense Vancouver is a master lesson. They perform 200 events a year. We said: This model has to be copied.”

But perhaps most significantly—and one of the reasons for Dolf DeJong’s secondment to Valencia—Oceanogràfic has also begun to emulate Vancouver Aquarium’s approach to public engagement. The Valencia aquarium already had a turtle rescue program, in which staff members rescue eggs from beaches and work with fishermen to understand the dangers facing turtles—but as Meléndez notes, “We did this program in the past, but we didn’t involve people.” Staff began organizing turtle release events, for the public or with local schools, to highlight the aquarium’s work. “These kids that are involved in this action, whenever in the next months they see a turtle coming out of the water, they will understand that there’s an opportunity to keep away.”

In April 2016, after more than half a year in Spain, Dolf DeJong went to another turtle release event. The turtles are tagged with satellite trackers so that anyone can follow their journey on Oceanogràfic’s website. He knew that turtles previously cared for in the aquarium were doing well. He picked one up, carried it across the beach and set it down on the sand. The animal crawled into the water and swam away.

To the Rescue

There are no signs marking the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and in fact the forklifts darting back and forth across the driveway seem to act as guards. Surrounded by the noise, movement and structures of water-related industry–storage facilities, Dumpsters, factories, ships and a battalion of orange container cranes lining the horizon–the low buildings of the facility on Burrard Inlet are huddled like a vulnerable fortress, outlined by a fence covered in plastic turf.

Unlike much of the work done by the aquarium, which seeks to educate and engage as many people as possible, the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre–the only one of its kind in Canada, and among the five largest in the world–is almost covert. And that’s just the way John Nightingale, the aquarium’s CEO, likes it. “We don’t need any people popping over fences or doing anything weird. We’re here for them.”

He’s talking about the two-dozen harbour seal pups, arranged in an array of blue plastic bins under a large white tent. The variety of colours, shapes and sizes of pups provides a quick picture of the diversity in the province’s seal population (one of them, Poucette, is a striking blonde). All were abandoned or separated from their mothers in their early days, found somewhere along B.C.’s coast and brought here by car, boat or helicopter. They get medical attention and learn to swim and feed. When they are assessed as ready to survive in the wild, they are taken back to the place where they stranded. About 70 per cent survive, and this year about 150 seals were rehabilitated and released. The centre, which opened in 1960, has rescued other animals as well: dolphins, harbour porpoises, an orca and turtles. It operates with a $500,000 budget and sits on land donated by the Port of Vancouver.

Marine mammal rescue is somewhat of a thankless task–it’s expensive work that falls outside the expertise of the SPCA and beyond the mandate of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “There are people who say, ‘Wait a minute, there are lots of harbour seals, how come you rescue them?'” says Nightingale. “Grey seals on the east coast are considered pests.”

But as aquarium veterinarian Marty Haulena points out, the seals are “incredibly good sentinels of our local ecosystem.” Each one gets a physical exam upon arrival, and blood samples are taken throughout their stay; the bank of samples offers a unique opportunity for researchers to determine when a disease may have been introduced to B.C., to measure the animal’s immunological response and to find clues to the disease’s prevalence.

“Each one of them gives us a little something back,” he says. “They’re going to help us learn a little more about their environment and even pathogens that affect humans. I call it their little price for coming in and getting helped out.”

Hot Waters

While lauded for much of its work, the Vancouver Aquarium has also faced frequent criticism for its practice of keeping and breeding whales and other cetaceans. In March 2014, the issue was raised by two Vision Vancouver Park Board commis­sioners. Intense media coverage of meetings and protests followed for six months, during which time the board considered enacting a bylaw banning breeding of cetaceans at the aquarium. The issue was ultimately resolved in that year’s civic election, in which a majority of board seats went to the Non Partisan Association.

John Nightingale has vehemently argued that the mammals are safe and unharmed, given professional care, and used in multiple scientific studies that justify their captivity. Keeping large mammals—known in the zoo world as “charismatic megafauna”—helps bring in the visitors that fund half of the aquarium’s $37.5-million budget, enabling its conservation and research work. He dismisses the arguments made against keeping cetaceans as the emotional rhetoric of a small minority of activists.

Following the unexplained November deaths of two belugas, Aurora and her daughter, Qila, the conversation may have shifted. One of those to call for a referendum on whether the aquarium should be allowed to keep cetaceans has been park board chair Sarah Kirby-Yung, an NPA member who previously worked for the aquarium. “I have a lot of heart for both sides of the issue,” she recently told the CBC. “I think as an institution, they do incredible work. I also have to listen to Vancouverites, that’s what I was elected to do, and there’s a growing discomfort that people have with having cetaceans there.”

LITTLE WHITE WHALE | This beluga lives in Oceanogràfic’s Arctic Gallery, which is modelled on Vancouver