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

London Drugs at Colwood Corners is temporarily closed after a water main burst on Sunday afternoon. (Google Maps)
Water main burst temporarily closes London Drugs in Colwood

Staff say re-opening date yet to be determined after Sunday incident

West Shore RCMP say a single car crash into a power pole caused a power outage that affected over 1,500 residents in Colwood on Monday morning. (West Shore RCMP)
Vancouver driver cause of power outage in Colwood

Police detain 27-year-old man for impaired driving investigation

West Shore RCMP officers delivered dumped Amazon packages on Monday. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore RCMP deliver Amazon packages dumped outside mailbox

Officers take matters into their own hands ‘before mailbox pirates got to it’

The Capital Regional District spent $1.7 million to restore the Todd Creek Trestle. (Sooke News Mirror)
Todd Creek Trestle restoration completed

Restoration work adds 35 to 50 years to life span of the structure

More than 250 riders took part in the fifth annual Tripleshot CrossFondo, which riders across parts of the Saanich Peninsula, including this field near Sluggett Farms. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Tripleshot CrossFondo rides across Saanich Peninsula

More than 250 cyclists took part in mystery-course race

Advance polls are open from Oct. 15 to 21 with election day on Oct. 24. (Black Press Media file photo)
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

(File photo)
RCMP: Two men face charges in reported Parksville fatal hit-and-run

Investigation into man’s death began in August of 2019

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson visits a North Vancouver daycare to announce his party’s election promises for child care, Oct. 9, 2020. (B.C. Liberal Party video)
B.C. parties pitch costly child care programs in pandemic

B.C. Liberals say they’ll deliver on NDP’s $10-a-day promise for lower-income families

Steven Michael Bacon pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder of Nanaimo teen Makayla Chang. (Photos submitted)
Accused pleads not guilty in Nanaimo teen’s 2017 murder

Steven Bacon appeared in Nanaimo court Monday via video link from Thunder Bay

Voting station at Tzeachten Hall in the riding of Chilliwack-Kent on the first day of advance voting in the provincial election on Oct. 15, 2020. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. VOTES 2020: 380,000 British Columbians head to polls in first 4 days of advance voting

Some of highest voter turnout so far has been seen on Vancouver Island and in Shuswap

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Kootenay couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Most Read