A South African penguin pauses to watch the fish in a exhibit during her exercise walk through the aquarium Thursday, September 10, 2020. The Vancouver Aquarium has had to close its doors to the public due to the lack of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Vancouver’s shuttered aquarium searching for financial solution amid pandemic

The aquarium needs about $1 million a month to cover its costs

Lillooet stepped out of her travelling cage, stretched her wings, shook her tail feathers and looked around the empty foyer of the Vancouver Aquarium.

The 22-year-old African penguin recently took a stroll outside her enclosure without having to dodge the crowds of people who would normally be watching the shimmering jellyfish or schools of fish in the glass cases that surrounded her.

The aquarium closed its doors on Sept. 7 as it sorts through the financial devastation of COVID-19 on one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.

Lasse Gustavsson, president and CEO of the aquarium’s operator Ocean Wise, said they need to find a way to function that is profitable and safe during the pandemic.

“So, right now we’re looking at how can we run the pandemic safe operation? How can we attract visitors in the numbers that carry the costs of the operation?” he said in an interview.

“We’re fighting bankruptcy.”

VIDEO: Penguins roam empty halls of Vancouver Aquarium

Ocean Wise was launched in 2017 as a non-profit organization that focuses on global ocean conservation and it signed a new licence agreement last year that allows the aquarium to operate in Stanley Park for the next 35 years.

The Metro Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau says the aquarium is the country’s largest and attracts more than one million visitors a year.

The aquarium needs about $1 million a month to cover its costs. With no money coming in from ticket sales, the aquarium is dependent on donations from the public, funding from the federal and provincial governments and dipping into the organization’s savings, said Gustavsson.

Although it closed its gates, he said the Ocean Wise Conservation Association’s other initiatives will continue including the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, its research programs and marine mammal rescue service.

The aquarium, which is home to about 70,000 animals, closed when the pandemic was first declared and when it reopened in June with visitor restrictions, ticket sales were down by almost 80 per cent, causing it to continue operating in the red.

Its board of directors is now trying to find a way of remaining financially viable and accelerating its conservation mission, but Gustavsson said he doesn’t know what that will look like.

“I don’t think anybody knows that,” he added.

Several aquariums and zoos across North America are looking at how to run their operations during the pandemic, he said.

“My guesstimate, and it’s not really underpinned with serious data, is a lot of aquariums in North America would go under this year or next unless we find a very fast solution to the pandemic.”

Gustavsson said he doesn’t know when the Vancouver Aquarium will be open to the public again.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect any visitors in the aquarium before maybe June next year at the very earliest,” he said.

“We will open again, one day, somehow.”

READ MORE: Vancouver Aquarium to shut its doors, focus on new business model amid COVID-19 losses

The aquarium has laid off 209 full-time, part-time and casual positions, leaving it with 75 staff to take care of the animals.

It is home to a number of animals that have been rescued and are now cared for by its keepers including a California sea lion blinded by gunshot and a two-month-old otter named Joey that was found on Vancouver Island next to a dead adult presumed to be his mother.

Jim Facette, executive director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, said almost every similar organization in the country is facing challenges to “varying degrees.”

Cherry Brook Zoo in Saint John, N.B., had to close its doors permanently earlier this year because of financial hardships that were compounded by COVID-19.

Facette said there will be a place for zoos and aquariums after the pandemic because of the healing power of animals, including the Vancouver Aquarium.

“I’m confident that they’ll be back sometime in the new year. When? I don’t know,” he said.

“Is there a possibility of things going sideways? That possibility exists for anybody, so I can’t give you a 100 per cent guarantee but I’m very, very confident in senior management.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusVancouver Aquarium

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Mark Zenko from the Gyro Club of the Albernis presents a donation of $2,720 to Chris Mellin, left, house manager at Ty Watson House Hospice and Teresa Ludvigson, executive director of Alberni Valley Hospice Society. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Gyro Club donation comes at good time for Ty Watson House Hospice

COVID-19 has cancelled hospice society’s major fundraisers.

(BLACK PRESS FILE PHOTO)
Nanaimo man killed in Highway 4 crash

RCMP say dirt bike turned ‘suddenly’ into traffic

Port Alberni’s deepsea port was a busy place on July 14, 2020, with recreational boaters vying for attention with a logging ship, fishing vessels large and small, tugboats and more. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
QUINN’S QUIPS: ‘Port’ Alberni lives up to its deepsea name

Port Alberni’s harbour is an engaging place to stop and watch the action on the water…

Asher Brown of Port Alberni, 11, is making a name for himself in B.C. motocross action. He and his dad, Geoff Brown, started riding with Alberni Motocross Association (AVMX) at the same time. (DOUG FISK PHOTO)
Alberni Motocross signs new land deal with Mosaic

Land Use Agreement ensures continued motocross action on Cherry Creek track

The Alberni-Clayoquot Recycling Depot is located on Third Avenue in Port Alberni. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
EDITORIAL: It’s Waste Reduction Week in Canada. What are you doing to reduce waste?

The ACRD has launched a new ACRD Collects app to assist in diverting more waste from the landfill

Port Alberni resident Holly Braker-McLaughlin captured footage of five bears playing in her yard. (SCREENSHOT)
VIDEO: Quintet of bears frolic in Alberni Valley yard

Port Alberni family was treated to a visit from some playful black bears

Jordan Naterer, an electrical engineer from Vancouver, was last seen Saturday Oct. 10. (Facebook photo)
Search efforts to resume for missing Manning Park hiker; Trudeau speaks on case

PM says he’ll do what he can to ‘nudge’ efforts to find Jordan Naterer, yet has little leverage locally

Smartphone showing various applications to social media services and Google. (Pixabay photo)
National media calling for level playing field with Google, Facebook

In Canada, Google and Facebook control 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues

École de L’Anse-au-sable. (Google Maps)
B.C. records first COVID-19 outbreak at school, six weeks after students return to class

Three cases of the virus have been identified at École de L’Anse-au-sable

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau is seen as she leaves media event during a campaign stop in West Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green leader hopes voters see value in minority government

The Greens received nearly 17 per cent of the popular vote in 2017 yet received just three seats

Local candidates Pam Alexis, Abbotsford-Mission, and Preet Rai, Abbotsford-West, look on as NDP Leader John Horgan main streets in Abbotsford, B.C., Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. NDP takes snap election risk during pandemic in quest for majority government

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said the election was unnecessary and irresponsible during the pandemic

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson speaks during a drive-in car rally campaign stop at a tour bus operator, in Delta, B.C., on October 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. Liberal Leader maintains confidence as campaign tests party identity

Liberal campaign has been disrupted by controversy

Most Read