Lunch with the Vancouver Aquarium’s John Nightingale

John Nightingale | BCBusiness
Colorado-born John Nightingale has previously worked at the Seattle Aquarium and Maui Ocean Center.

Aquarium CEO John Nightingale doesn’t miss New York’s high-society parties, but laments that Vancouverites have a lesson to learn about supporting civic institutions

For all the social hobnobbing he experienced working in New York City, John Nightingale would take the more pedestrian Vancouver every time. The Vancouver Aquarium CEO is regaling me with a story of his early career years at the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the New York Zoological Society). With actors such as Glenn Close and Tony Randall on the board, high-society invitations flowed and so did his sense of fun, including arriving at parties with an accoutrement from the society’s aquarium, where he was assistant director.

“You were the entertainment basically, the object of curiosity,” says the 66-year-old, who has now spent two decades at the helm of the Vancouver facility. “Sometimes I would take a sea otter’s skin with me just to play the part. It was kind of surreal.” While Colorado-born, Oregon-raised Nightingale wanted to return west and has never missed New York’s highfalutin occasions and heavy traffic, he is, however, quick to lament its advantage over B.C. in the fundraising stakes. With the Vancouver Aquarium established to be financially self-sufficient and now pushing a seven-year, $100-million fundraising campaign for its overhaul, money is clearly on his mind.

“New York’s been at it a long time— everyone knows how the philanthropic and cultural game is played, so kids growing up in those families are taught to be civic minded,” he says. Not only is Vancouver far from being a headquarter city, but people often come from elsewhere, adds Nightingale, who has a doctorate in physiology from the University of Washington and previously worked at the Seattle Aquarium and Maui Ocean Center. “That mixing pot is one of its strengths, but it also means that in terms of support for cultural and civic activities it makes it a little rougher for fundraising.”

It may be tougher, but the aquarium is more than halfway toward its target, including a $12.5-million donation from Teck Resources Ltd. The aquarium has surpassed a record million visitors in each of the past two years, and Nightingale rolls out a well-rehearsed elevator pitch summarizing why the new work is necessary. “When humans approach 50 you see the eye doctor and the dentist; when aquariums turn 50, it’s about rotting concrete and bad pipes,” Nightingale says. Carrying on the analogy, he notes that the new 55,000-square-foot expansion being unveiled this summer is “the equivalent of two knees, a hip and a triple bypass.”

A recreational cyclist who likes to ride in from his West Vancouver home where he lives with wife Jacquie Gijssen (he has three children from a previous marriage and is a grandfather of four), the CEO revels in working in the heart of Stanley Park. He notes that the aquarium’s surroundings are conducive to helping with his organization’s overriding mandate: to educate.

While that mandate mainly applies to schoolchildren, it’s clear it also includes standing up to activists. Nightingale admits that on balance he would prefer it if there were no need for institutions such as the aquarium and that people could learn in nature, but he believes that’s untenable.

“If we had four million scuba divers in B.C., they would make a mess of the marine environment,” he concludes, as we eat Cobb and tuna salads at Yew restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown (carefully chosen for its Ocean Wise menu—the sustainable seafood program Nightingale helped to set up).

“There are really valid reasons for keeping living animals, and people want to be assured that they are well cared for,” he says. “This is about telling our side of the story.”

John Nightingale’s Favourites

1. “I pretty much stick to Ocean Wise restaurants. I love Japanese food—both traditional and nouvelle—and enjoy the Hapa restaurants (various locations; I eat absolutely anything and everything from prepared meals such as hotpots to sushi.”

2. “I feel I’m an interloper from Stanley Park when I go downtown. When I do, I like to head to a Caffé Artigiano (various locations; and enjoy lower pH beans such as the Middle East Arabica for my Americano. Always decaf—I like to sing in choirs and caffeine is bad for vocal cords.”

3. “I admire people like John Bishop who commissioned farmers in the valley to grow what he needed and other chefs who are following in their footsteps such as Chris Whittaker at Forage (; 1300 Robson St., Vancouver) and Ned Bell at Yew. They’re both close to the park, which is good, too.”