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

The road into Crofton will be a lot nicer when the roller coaster bumps are taken out of Crofton Road. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Crofton Road improvements to start taking shape Nov. 2

It’ll be a long haul until next summer to get it done and motorists should expect delays

Cowichan-Malahat-Langford MP Alistair MacGregor has expressed concerns about the excessive freighters parked in the Salish Sea for quite some time. (Photo submitted)
MacGregor introduces bill to address freighter anchorages

Concerns about the environment, noise, pollution and safety abundant

Email letters to editor@wltribune.com.
Letters: Ladysmith’s litter lethargy

LSS student Gar Fisher writes that people need to properly dispose of their cigarette butts

Doug Routley has retained his seat as Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA. (Photo submitted)
Routley retains his post as Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA

NDP stronghold in the riding continues despite a strong challenge from the Greens’ Istace

The temporary public washroom located between 531 & 521 1st Avenue will soon be removed to begin construction on the permanent downtown public washroom facility. (Cole Schisler photo)
Construction on downtown public washroom to begin ‘before Christmas’

Council and staff discussed the possibility of a contest to determine the colour of the washroom

FILE – Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the latest update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province during a press conference in the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. shatters COVID-19 records with 817 weekend cases; masks now expected indoors

Three people have died over the past three reporting periods

RCMP have released more details regarding what led up to an arrest caught on video in Williams Lake Sunday, Oct. 26. (Facebook video screenshot)
Review launched after ‘high-risk, multi-jurisdictional’ chase, arrest in Williams Lake

RCMP launching a full review and code of conduct investigation

(Pxfuel)
B.C. limits events in private homes to household, plus ‘safe six’ amid COVID-19 surge

Henry issued a public health order limiting private gatherings to one household, plus a group of ‘safe six’ only

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson speaks during a drive-in car rally campaign stop at a tour bus operator, in Delta, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Andrew Wilkinson stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader

Will stay on until the next party leader is chosen

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Harvesters participating in the extended commercial halibut season will need to land their catch in either Prince Rupert (pictured), Vancouver, or Port Hardy by Dec. 14. (File photo)
B.C.’s commercial halibut season extended three weeks

COVID-19 market disruptions at the root of DFO’s decision

Campbell River's new hospital, July 2018
Nurse diverts opiates and falsifies records at Campbell River Hospital

Nurse facing disciplinary action for moving opiates out of the hospital

VicPD and B.C. Conservation Officer Service teamed up to free two bucks who were entangled in a fishing net and dragging a wheelbarrow sized piece of driftwood behind them. (VicPD)
VIDEO: Police, B.C. Conservation help two bucks caught in one fishing net

Bucks were also dragging a wheelbarrow sized piece of driftwood behind them

A heavy police presence was spotted in Lumby, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (Facebook)
Police situation leads to ‘hold and secure’ at North Okanagan school

Police call for social media blackout in ongoing incident

Most Read