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

Chris Marchand
Survivors spread reconciliation with Vernon’s cultural partners

Cultural Safety Program facilitated by Syilx elders

(Submitted by Cassidi Markus)
Snow flurries forecasted for the Okanagan this weekend

Arctic front expected to bring colder than average temperatures and snow

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Interior Health records 21 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Thirty-six cases remain active; two people are in the hospital, one of whom is in intensive care

The District of Lake Country closed down the controversial Airport Inn Lakeside motel in 2019. (Daniel Taylor - Black Press file)
Asking price for controversial Airport Inn in Lake Country dropped to $6.9M

‘Lake Country is too precious a place to not have something great there,’ Realtor says

Vernon’s Okanagan Spring Brewery rolled out its first product – Premium Lager – 35 years ago on Oct. 19, 1985. (Google Maps)
Cheers to Vernon’s Okanagan Spring Brewery

Company produced first brew 35 years ago on Oct. 19, 1985

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

With local MLA Adam Olsen looking on, BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said a Green government would convert BC Ferries into a Crown corporation Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Green leader Sonia Furstenau promises to convert BC Ferries back into Crown corporation

Promise comes Monday afternoon with five days left in campaign

Junction 3 Coffeehouse in Osoyoos has found a creative way for customers to enjoy a cup of coffee outdoors in their own safe bubble. (Junction 3 photo)
Hangout in your own personal bubble at this South Okanagan cafe

Osoyoos cafe gets creative under COVID-19 restrictions

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna man charged after allegedly stealing senior’s car

Elderly woman’s car was stolen while she was shopping

Salmon Arm RCMP say residents have been receiving calls from fraudster claiming to be with Publishers Clearing House. (File photo)
Salmon Arm RCMP warn of Publishers Clearing House telephone scam

Police say scammer requests fee to claim sweepstakes prizes

Osoyoos Fire Department responded to reports of a vehicle engulfed in flames Sunday (Oct. 18) evening at a Lambert Court residence. (Osoyoos Fire Department)
Osoyoos Fire Department knock down car fire near home

Blaze was ‘really close’ to becoming a structure fire

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Police confirm human remains were found in a recycling bin in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Human remains found in recycling bin floating near Vancouver beach

Police asking nearby residents to see if their recycling bin has gone missing

Most Read