At first the drizzle merely glistened on my skin as I watched their white bodies slide effortlessly through the shallow waters of their tank. Relatively warm for a November evening in Vancouver, the light rain still sent a coolness through my body. A coolness the belugas probably didn’t notice at all.
Surrounded by a crowd of scientists, I was yet alone in my thoughts. To the casual observer the white whales seemed happy enough in their chilly waters. Their six inches of blubber probably made them feel warm in comparison to their native Arctic habitat. But I knew better. It was knowledge of that native habitat that touched me so deeply even as the rain, falling much heavier now, began to batter my skin one piercing droplet at a time. Hooked since my first field trip to the New England Aquarium, over my life I’ve visited 34 public aquariums on three continents. And yet, lately, I feel more ambivalent about my fascination.
Like zoos, aquariums have evolved. The feeling I have as I mentally swim with the belugas is similar to my first trip to a zoo as a young boy. While others frolicked between the barren cages housing the usual assortment of no-longer-wild animals, I stood outside the silverback mountain gorilla cage and felt his sadness. Like now with the belugas, we seemed to find a mutual understanding inside our souls. Which made it all the more sad, knowing that I would walk away and the gorilla would be trapped there until his bored psychosis became too disturbing for the busloads of children come here to gawk.
Years later I know that facilities have worked harder to provide more natural habitats for both land and aquatic animals. But the necessity for visitors to see the animals on display constrains the options. Even the words “on display” feel painful to type. While the belugas get better treatment than in the past, they still are relegated to a life of being trained performers for the crowds. The same crowds whose entrance fees help pay for basic research about the life histories of the animals that I wish were not here for them to see.
An hour had passed and I was soaked to the bone. Most of the other conference-goers had retreated inside the aquarium to drink and converse with colleagues, my fellow humans. I alone remained with the whales, and they remained with me. Each drop of the falling rain saturated me, and in a sense, immersed me further into their world.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.