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Cetaceans in captivity: an SFU researcher may have a solution

A young visitor watches a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium. Someday soon virtual belugas could replace captive ones, says SFU researcher Steve DiPaola.

Should cetaceans--ocean-dwelling mammals such as whales and dolphins--be kept at the Vancouver Aquarium? That question was on a lot of minds last week as the Vancouver Park Board debated--and defeated--a motion to hold a city-wide referendum next year on whether to phase out cetaceans in captivity in Vancouver parks (effectively, the aquarium which is located in Stanley Park).

It's a controversial issue, with some people arguing that since cetaceans are intelligent mammals, it is akin to slavery to put them on exhibit, while others say that having the whales and dolphins at the Aquarium has educational, research and environmental awareness value. The five whales and three dolphins also draw the largest crowds to the aquarium, and thus contribute to the facility’s bottom line.

Steve DiPaola, an associate professor of interactive arts and technology professor at Simon Fraser University, thinks that technology may provide a solution to the dilemma. He suggests displaying virtual belugas and dolphins instead of real ones. Although DiPaola concedes the technology isn't advanced enough yet to replace the cetaceans with computer-generated ones, he believes it's only a matter of time before virtual animals can replace real ones in zoos and aquaria around the world.

Steve DiPaola and graduate student Caitlink Akai, with a pod of virtual belugas.

DiPaola has been involved with interactive 3D animation since 1984. He has taught at Stanford University and worked at Electronic Arts (where he worked on the Sims series of games among other projects), and has consulted for other companies. An artist, he's also experimented with computer-generated paintings based on Rembrandt portraits and a portrait of Charles Darwin. I've talked about one of his other projects--using videogame technology to help autistic children communicate--in a previous Megabytes column. You can find out more about his many research interests at

For the past few years DiPaola has been working with the Vancouver Aquarium on a project to create a virtual beluga whale exhibit. 

“The aquarium currently have a number of live belugas as their main attraction and wanted to supplement this with a simulation of a virtual wild beluga pod,” he says. The virtual belugas would be used to show visitors how the whales behave in the wild, something not possible with the captive belugas. Visitors could interact with the exhibit and experiment with "what-if" scenarios, such as introducing a new, aggressive beluga into the virtual pod to see how the other whales react.

The virtual beluga project is temporarily on hold, he says, but he thinks it could lay the groundwork for one day replacing live animals in captivity with virtual animals, whether belugas or tigers or other creatures. "Animals and fish don't always do the most interesting things while you're there watching," he points out. "With virtual simulation you can show the interesting things they do and interact with them in humane ways."

DiPaola envisions cameras and other sensors, such as GPS units and accelerometers, that could track wildlife in real time and relay their data to zoos and aquariums where virtual creatures would duplicate the behaviour of the real animals.

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