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article imageOp-Ed: Vancouver Aquarium loses its oldest beluga whale, Kavna

By Elizabeth Batt     Aug 7, 2012 in Environment
Vancouver - The Vancouver Aquarium has reported that Kavna, the oldest beluga whale at an accredited aquarium in North America has died at the age of 46 years. But how many people truly knew Kavna, or where she came from?
After 37 years of service to the public as a captive beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium, Kavna died on August 6th, far from the waters of Manitoba, where she was captured. In their tribute to Kavna, the Aquarium summed up her life in just three short paragraphs. In the final paragraph, they wrote:
Kavna, who has enchanted the hearts and admiration of millions of visitors, will be greatly missed by Aquarium staff, volunteers, members and visitors.
The Aquarium said that Kavna had lived a long life considering that "in the wild," the white whale is "believed to live to about 25 to 30 years old." But this doesn't jibe with NOAA's assessment. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that longevity for belugas in the wild is 35-50 years.
According to biography details compiled by, Kavna's estimated birth year was 1969 and she was a free whale until her capture on July 25,1976 from the Churchill River, Manitoba. She was 8-feet long at the time of capture, and according to Alan Best, the former curator at Vancouver Aquarium, "as cute as a button."
Kavna was transferred to Vancouver on July 29, 1976 with another female whale named Sanaq. Bob Lowery described the transfer of Kavna, Sanaq and another beluga whale in his article "Three Churchill whales fly first class to new love lives," published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 30, 1976.
"Two beluga whales, brides-to-be," said Lowery, "left here Thursday and joined their mate in a Vancouver Aquarium." Another he continues, will be flown to "New York, where she will occupy a luxurious 45-by-80-foot tank in the Coney Island Aquarium." Kavna, Lowery said, had been captured in a "whale hunt;" Sanaq was "roped and brought ashore."
Lowery also describes how the whales were caught. Boats, he explains, herd a single beluga into shallow water, then a diver jumps into the water and attempts to lasso the whale. "Often," continues Lowery, the diver will "ride on the back of the whale, while attempting to fix the rope over its head." It can be quite the battle implies the journalist, as he describes how during Sanaq's capture, John Hicks (a Churchill motel operator and director of the hunt), incurred a gash over one eye.
Kavna and Sanaq it was hoped, would become breeding mates for Vancouver Aquarium's lone beluga whale, a male named Lugosi, captured several years earlier in Alaskan waters. But in the meantime, said Lowery, both of the females could enjoy their new "spacious surroundings."
Ironically, the caption in Lowery's article that accompanies the photograph of the whale transfer, appears to contradict his former comment. "A Beluga whale gets a bird's-eye view of her natural habitat before flying to Vancouver," it says.
The name Kavna (kav-na), writes citing (Neil, 2007), is Inuktitut, Netsilik, Iglulik, and means:
"Female spirit of the deep" or "the one down there" [and] refers to the Inuit legend of the mother of sea mammals.
But Kavna would only ever have one successful birth.
On July 13, 1977, she delivered a live calf who had been sired in the wild before she was captured. The Aquarium named him Tuaq. He was the first beluga to be born at the Aquarium; he was less than 4 months old when he died on November 2, 1977.
Kavna also inspired Canadian troubadour Raffi to pen one of his biggest hits "Baby Beluga," after he met the whale at the Aquarium in 1979. The announcement of her death, also left an impression. According to the The Vancouver Sun, on Monday night, Raffi Cavoukian tweeted:
Just heard the news, sad she’s gone. Loved meeting her in ’79 ~ gave me a kiss, inspired a song now known to millions!
It is sad that Raffi never understood the irony of his lyrics:
Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go.
For 37 years, Kavna did not swim in the deep blue sea, nor did she swim free. The whale was taken from her natural habitat, held in a tiny tank, and was taught tricks in return for a ration of dead fish.
Video is by durdlin.
According to CTV News, a press release by Vancouver Aquarium spokesperson Charlene Chiang, said that "Preliminary necropsy results showed Kavna had lesions consistent with cancer, although an infectious cause is still a small possibility."
Kavna's necropsy the zoo said, showed that the whale had widespread lesions in her reproductive tract and other tissues. The whale was being treated for a reproductive disorder when she died.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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