In 1996, Vancouver Aquarium became the first and only aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture cetaceans from the wild for display. We now only accept and care for whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) that were born in an aquarium or were rescued and deemed non-releasable by an appropriate government authority.


Cetacean Research at the Vancouver Aquarium

The Ocean Wise mission is to effect the conservation of aquatic life. One of the principal ways it does that is through research. For the last three decades the research it has conducted on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) has been organized into two complimentary programs, one focused on animals in its own care and the other on the same and similar species in the wild. In both cases, Ocean Wise’s cetacean research is led by staff scientists and/or Ocean Wise research associates, often working in collaboration with university or government-based scientists or graduate students. Click here to read the highlights of studies focused on cetaceans in the Aquarium’s care and on field studies research related to those on-site studies over the past twenty-five years. For a list of additional Ocean Wise-led cetacean field research not directly related to studies conducted on-site click here

Concurrent with its own research on cetaceans, Ocean Wise hosts a comprehensive program of research on pinnipeds (seals and sealions) led by the University of British Columbia. For more information about this program see click here.   

Historical Overview of Research at the Vancouver Aquarium

The Vancouver Aquarium’s founders included a group of fisheries professors from the University of British Columbia who ensured that the Aquarium’s mandate included research as well as education. The Aquarium has honored this commitment for its entire 55-year history, initially by providing facilities and marine animals for university-based researchers, and more recently by appointing staff scientists to conduct research both on-site and in the wild. It hired its first marine mammal research scientist on a temporary basis in 1967 to study learning and vision in killer whales and in 1989 created a full time permanent marine mammal scientist position to lead a study of killer whale communication and acoustic behaviour. Since then, the Aquarium’s marine mammal research program has broadened to include studies of cognition, echolocation, endocrinology, echolocation, metabolic physiology, population genetics and, most recently, ecotoxicology. In addition to its own research it provide external scientists with the opportunity to conduct conservation-oriented research on the cetaceans in its care, and also participates actively in training and supporting graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

Click here to read the full highlights of current and recent research on cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium


Studies of Cetaceans in the Care of the Vancouver Aquarium

Peer-reviewed papers

Bennett, E.R., Ross, P.S., Huff, D., Alaee, M., Letcher, R.J. 2009. Chlorinated and brominated organic contaminants and metabolites in the plasma and diet of a captive killer whale (Orcinus orca). Marine Pollution

Bulletin 58: 1078-1095.

Brodie, P., Ramirez, K., Haulena, M. 2013. Growth and maturity of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in Cumberland Sound, Canada and in captivity: evidence for two growth layer groups (GLGs) per year in teeth. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 13: 1-18.

Erbe, C., Farmer, D.M. 1998. Masked hearing thresholds of a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) in icebreaker noise. Deep Sea Research 45: 1373-1388.

Frouin, H., Loseto, L.L., Stern, G.A., Haulena, M., Ross, P.S. 2012. Mercury toxicity in beluga whale lymphocytes: limited effects of selenium protection. Aquatic Toxicology 109: 185-193.

Heise, K., Yurk, H., Nordstrom, C., Barrett-Lennard, L. In press.  Eds. A. Popper and T. Hawkins.  A permanent soundscape monitoring system for the care of animals in aquaria.  Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life II. Springer International Publishing.

Hoelzel, A.R., Ford, J.K.B., Dover, G.A.  1991.  A paternity test case for killer whales (Orcinus orca) by DNA fingerprinting.  Marine Mammal Science 7: 35-43.

Kot, B.C.W., Dalton, L., Fernando, N., Haulena, M., Jen I.F., Kinoshita R., Martelli, .P, Ramer, J., Van Bonn, W. 2011.  Applications and limitations of marine mammal sonography: a radiographer’s perspective. Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology 37:S15

Leung, E.S., Vergara, V., Barrett-Lennard, L.G. 2010. Allonursing in captive belugas. Zoo Biology 29: 1–5.

Maggi R.G., Raverty, S.A., Lester, S.J., Huff, D.G. Haulena, M., Ford, S.L., Nielsen, O.  Robinson, J.H., Breitschwerdt, E.B.  2008.  Bartonella henselae in captive and hunter-harvested beluga (Delphinapterus leucas).  Journal of Wildlife Disease 44: 871-877.

Piercey, R.S., Rechsteiner, R.U., Battaile, B.C., Trites, A.W. 2013. Seasonal changes in the food intake of captive Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). Aquatic Mammals 39: 211-220.

Rechsteiner, E.U., Rosen, D.A.S., Trites, A.W. 2013. Seasonal resting metabolic rate and food intake of captive Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). Aquatic Mammals 39: 241-252.

Rechsteiner, E.U., Rosen, D.A.S., Trites, A.W. 2013. Energy requirements of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) as predicted by a bioenergetic model. Journal of Mammalogy 94: 820-832.

Robeck, T.R., Monfort, S.L., Calle, P.P., Dunn, J.L., Jensen, E., Boehm, J.R., Young, S., Clark, S.T.,  2005.  Reproduction, growth and development in captive beluga (Delphinaptererus leucas).  Zoo Biology 24:  29-49.  

Rosen, D.A.S., Trites, A.W. 2013. Resting metabolic rate of a mature male beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas). Aquatic Mammals 39:85-88.

Vergara, V., Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Michaud, R.  2010. What can captive whales tell us about their wild counterparts? Identification, usage, and ontogeny of contact calls in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). International Journal of Comparative Psychology 23: 278-309.

Vergara, V., Barrett-Lennard, L.G. 2008. Vocal development in a beluga calf. Aquatic Mammals 34:123-143.


Erbe, C. 1997. The masking of beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) vocalizations by icebreaker noise. PhD. dissertation. University of British Columbia.

Javdan, S. 2010. A preliminary study on the effect of visitor density and intensity on the space use, behaviour and vocalization patterns of captive Pacific white-sided dolphins, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens. MSc. thesis.  University of St. Andrews. 

Leung, E.  2004. Social organization of captive beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas.  Honours thesis.  University of British Columbia.

MacLeod, C. 2009. Vocal learning in a captive beluga calf (Delphinapterus leucas).  Honours thesis.  University of British Columbia. 

Recchia, C. A. 1994. Social Behaviour of Captive Belugas, Delphinapterus leucas. PhD. dissertation.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology & Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

Rechsteiner, E. 2012. Resting metabolism, energetics, and seasonal distribution of Pacific white-sided dolphins. MSc. thesis. University of British Columbia. 

Vergara, V. 2011. Acoustic communication and vocal learning in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas).  PhD. dissertation.  University of British Columbia.  

Studies on wild cetaceans that benefitted from or depended on studies of cetaceans held at the Vancouver Aquarium, or that led to studies on Aquarium cetaceans


Alava, J.J., Ross, P.S., Lachmuth, C.L., Ford, J.K.B., Hickie, B.E., Gobas, F.A.P.C. 2012. Habitat-based PCB environmental quality criteria for the protection of endangered killer whales (Orcinus orca). Environmental Science & Technology 46: 12655-12663.

Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Smith, T.G., Ellis, G.M. 1996. A cetacean biopsy system using lightweight pneumatic darts, and its effect on the behaviour of killer whales. Marine Mammal Science 12: 14-27.

Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Heise, K.A. 2006 The Natural History and Ecology of Killer Whales: Foraging Specialization in a Generalist Predator. In Estes, J.A., Brownell, R.L., DeMaster, D.P., Doak, D.F., Williams, T.M.  Whales, whaling and ocean ecosystems. University of California Press, Berkely, C.A. pp. 163-173.

Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Heise, K.A. 2011. Killer Whale Conservation: The perils of life at the top of the food chain. Whalewatcher (Journal of the American Cetacean Society) 40(1) 58-62.

Cullon, D.L., Yunker, M.B., Alleyne, C., Dangerfield, N.J., O'Neill, S., Whiticar, M.J., Ross, P.S. 2009. Persistent organic pollutants in Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha): implications for resident killer whales of British Columbia and adjacent waters. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 28: 148-161.

Desforges, J.P.W., Ross, P.S., Loseto, L.L. 2013. Metabolic transformation shapes polychlorinated biphenyl and polybrominated diphenyl ether patterns in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32: 1132-1142.

Desforges, J.P.W., Ross, P.S., Loseto, L.L. 2012. Transplacental transfer of polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in Arctic beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 31: 296-300.

Erbe, C., Farmer, D.M. 2000. Zones of impact around icebreakers affecting beluga whales in the Beaufort Sea. Journal of Acoustical Society of America 108(3): 1332-1340.

Heise K.A. 1997a. Life history and population parameters of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). Report of the International Whaling Commission 47: 817-825.

Heise K.A. 1997b. Diet and feeding behaviour of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) as revealed through the collection of prey fragments and stomach content analyses. Report of the International Whaling Commission 47: 807-815.

Hickie, B.E., Ross, P.S., Macdonald, R.W., Ford, J.K.B. 2007. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) face protracted health risks associated with lifetime exposure to PCBs. Environmental Science and Technology 41: 6613-6619.

Riesch, R., Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Ellis, G.M., Ford, J.K.B., Deecke, V.B. 2012. Cultural traditions and the evolution of reproductive isolation: ecological speciation in killer whales?  Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 106: 1-17.


Vergara V., Michaud R., Barrett-Lennard L.G. 2009. Contact call usage in a wild beluga population: Challenges and lessons of a playback study. Unpublished Manuscript - Report prepared for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,    Canada.


Heise K.A. 1996. Life history parameters of the Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) and its diet and occurance in the coastal waters of British Columbia.  MSc. thesis.  University of British Columbia.