It’s easy to get a little jealous about Brian Sheehan’s typical (if there is such a thing) workday. He gets to play with dolphins. And sometimes whales, too. He’s the marine mammal curator at the Vancouver Aquarium, and he oversees the care and training of some of the aquarium’s biggest attractions, including whales, dolphins and sea lions. With a quarter century of experience working with marine wildlife — Sheehan has spent the last 19 at the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park.
Q: A friend is visiting and asks for one suggestion; what is the one, can’t miss attraction you’d recommend to them?
Brian Sheehan: I am going to point them in the direction of the dolphin habitat. The excitement and high energy of the dolphins combined with the educational value of the show and its relevant conservation message gives visitors a great sample of what the aquarium is all about — and hopefully makes them want to find some more time to explore the aquarium.
Q: Now your friend wants a second recommendation:
BS: Time to go see the belugas. These are such interesting, enthralling animals to sit and watch both in and outside of shows. It’s a great experience to watch a show and have the opportunity to learn more about these amazing creatures, which many people have never seen before. The underwater viewing area provides a wonderful interactive experience, as well.
Q: What is the best way to spend an entire day at the aquarium?
BS: First, go to the show board and plan out the shows you would like to see because they all have their own highlights. Don’t forget the 4D Experience [an IMAX-esque movie theatre with an extra dimension – misting, seat vibrations, etc.]! Once you’ve done that, it’s all about taking your time to really watch each of the exhibits. See things that others would miss; observe how the different animals interact with each other. Observe how the Amazon comes to life, and count how many species call that area home. Use the experience and knowledge of our amazing volunteer and interpretive staff to learn things about the aquarium that the average visitor would never find out.
Q: The Encounters programs let visitors work with the trainers of marine mammals at the aquarium. Beyond the first-hand interaction with your animals, what is the most unique aspect of taking part in one of the Encounters programs?
BS: Nothing can top the experience of interacting with one of the aquarium’s animals. But what truly makes it unique is the opportunities to learn more about a specific species from the experts, to have the opportunity to ask all the questions you want, and to be part of the behind-the-scenes experience. Your encounter includes the chance to spend time with the trainers that interact on a daily basis with these fascinating creatures. Take advantage of these moments, and make sure you use your time at the end of the encounter to speak with the dedicated marine-mammal staff and have all your questions answered.
Q: Which is your favourite animal to work with?
BS: There’s a tough one, all the animals have their own endearing qualities, whether it be from a point of training or from a relationship-building point of view. I will make a choice based on the fact that I have known her from the moment she was born and have spent more time with her than any other animal at the aquarium: That animal would be Qila, a 15-year-old beluga whale born at the aquarium in 1995. Having the chance to be part of her birth, growing up and then to watch her give birth to her own calf has been fantastic. Qila has a great personality that can be challenging at first, but once she accepts you, she is an amazing animal.
Q: What are the differences between working with a dolphin and a larger whale?
BS: It’s like having a sports car to drive some days and a transport truck on others. The same basic training and relationship-building principles apply, and you can love them both — but for different reasons. The way you work with them can be very different, and the behavior you reinforce can also change as the animal grows up. What can be considered cute with a smaller animal can actually become dangerous when that animal weighs in at several thousand kilograms. It all still comes down to following the basic principles of training, being consistent and building a strong relationship.
Q: How important is the Vancouver Aquarium’s research and conservation aspect?
BS: The aquarium is evolving in how it sees itself. No longer are we just an aquarium; we are a research and conservation facility. We take pride in what we do. Whether from a conservation standpoint looking at everything the aquarium does in its day-to-day operations (use of water and electricity), to a more research and animal care perspective, breeding endangered frogs to being a leading player in looking at why the Steller sea lion population is decreasing so rapidly. Is your neighbourhood restaurant changing what kind of seafood it is serving and going to a sustainable product? If so, the Vancouver Aquariums Ocean Wise program probably had something to do with it. And the Great Canadian Shoreline cleanup, coordinated by the aquarium, may have impacted a waterfront near you.
Q: What specific perspective do you hope a visitor walks away with after a trip to the aquarium?
BS: Through our animal shows, interpreter talks and just by providing an amazing and engaging experience, we want guests to understand that they can actually make a difference through the choices they make.