Montreal has its own amusement park, a plethora of museums, and too many festivals to name, but there's one attraction found in many major cities curiously absent from our fair metropolis: Montreal doesn't have its own aquarium.
This wasn't always true.
Believe it or not, Montreal once had its very own aquarium, originally created for Expo '67 in 1966. Built in collaboration with the City of Montreal and Alcan Aluminum Ltd., the aquatic attraction was popularly known as the Alcan Aquarium and was housed on St. Helen's Island.
A three-acre site that housed 1,600 fish, reptiles, and amphibians, the Alcan Aquarium was able to attract more than 500,000 every year in its prime. But while the aquarium itself was popular for years, one major pull for Montrealers was the dolphin pool, where spectators could watch a special aquatic performance for an extra fee.
Performed by four dolphins and their trainers, the dolphin shows at the Alcan Aquarium were beloved among the old and young in Montreal. It's somewhat ironic, then, that the dolphin shows adored by Montrealers would lead to a rather dark moment in the city's history.
Because, to put it bluntly, Montreal unfortunately killed the dolphins who called the Alcan Aquarium home. No, it wasn't on purpose, but it happened nonetheless.
Even more ironically is the fact that, what caused the deaths of Montreal's dolphins was supposed to better the lives of citizens. In other words, a worker's strike led to the fatality of almost all of the aquarium's dolphins.
The Worker's Strike/Dolphin Hunger Strike
On February 12th, 1980, Montreal's blue-collar workers enacted a strike after their demands of better pay and improved working conditions were denied.
Of the many workers who would go on strike, the six trainers who performed with and fed the Alcan Aquarium's dolphins were included. With their union's demands unmet, the trainers refused to to enter the aquarium and feed their charges.
This left the Alcan Aquarium's performing dolphins, Franny, Brigitte, Judith, and Kim, without their beloved trainers. And with the aquarium shut down, the dolphins also lost the crowds they loved to perform for.
Now some may consider the notion of dolphins no longer needing to perform for hordes of humans as a good thing. But dolphins are social creatures of habit; not only do they enjoy seeing people, performing dolphins are used to being fed during shows.
When the worker strike began, then, the performing dolphin's routine was entirely disrupted. In response, they enacted their own "hunger strike," refusing to eat any food given to them by interim feeders, people they didn't know nor were familiar with.
So two simultaneous strikes were underway from February to March 1980, with the end-result being quite disastrous for the dolphins involved.
The Death Of Montreal's Beloved Dolphins
During the 41-day span of the Montreal blue-collar worker strike, the aquarium's management tried to have the City of Montreal end the strike, as they were watching their dolphins waste away.
Nothing was done until late March, when the dolphin's trainers were given special permission by their union and the City to return to the aquarium and feed their mammalian friends.
“It’s kind of like they had a nervous breakdown” related Denis Menard, one of the four trainers who walked off the job on February 12, after witnessing just how much weight the performing dolphins had already lost. And while the dolphins brimmed with happiness to see their trainers return, by then, too much damage was done.
Before the strike, each dolphin would eat about 15-20 pounds of raw herring during their shows. After more than a month of each performing dolphin (Brigitte, Kim, Judith, and Fanny) refusing to eat, each had dropped from about 300 to 230 pounds.
When lifted out of the water for a blood test in late March, Brigitte died shortly thereafter. Fanny had already been found lying dead at the bottom of the pool where she once used to jump for joy. It was later discovered that she was three months pregnant.
Kim and Judith were in critical condition once their trainers returned to feed them. Judith would later pass away, making Kim the only surviving performing dolphin of the Alcan Aquarium, though she still contracted serious infection during the strike.
Dr Joseph Geraci, a dolphin expert from Ontario Veterinary College who ran the Alcan Aquarium in its early days, commented on the dolphin's hunger strike, saying “I’ve never witnessed anything like this before.”
He continued, stating how “the dead dolphins went without food for 38 days. We can’t say voluntarily. It was just that, because people didn’t know how to feed them, they wouldn’t eat”
As already stated, without their trainers and performances, the dolphins were lost without their usual routine. Without the comfort of regularity, the dolphins spiraled into a self-destructive state of depression.
Two non-performing dolphins, Carole and Pierrot, were also housed at the Alcan Aquarium, though they stayed in good health throughout the strike. Never getting used to eating while performing, Carole and Pierrot simply continued their regular eating habits of receiving meals directly from a feeder.
Despite this, Carole and Pierrot, along with Kim, were all sold to the Flipper Sea School in Florida shortly after the worker strike ended and the aquarium re-opened. But now lacking one of its major attractions, the Alcan Aquarium was doomed to fail.
The Future Failings Of The Montreal Aquarium
Nothing would truly fill the void left by the departed dolphins of the Alcan Aquarium, an attraction that was never really quite profitable to begin with.
It's possible the aquarium tried to purchase new dolphins, though the Marine Mammal Commission in Washington, which regulates the sale of mammals in North American aquariums, stipulated that sanctions had to be in place just in case another worker's strike occurred. No dolphins were ever purchased.
The Alcan Aquarium Aquarium could never truly recover from the negative press it received for the death of its dolphins. And given that, even during its best years, the aquarium consistently fell short $150,000 of the $400,000 needed to maintain the facility, the attraction was fated to close.
That didn't stop the aquarium from trying, however. In 1988, the aquarium was all set to be moved to the Old Port in an all-new and incredibly expensive facility. But the funds never materialized, largely due to recession experienced in the early 1990s, and the plan fell through.
Eventually, the City of Montreal gave up on trying to revitalize the aquarium, and the attraction shut its doors on September 15th, 1991. A majority of the fish were the moved to the Biodôme, the closest thing Montreal has had to an aquarium since.
But now, twenty-five years since the closure of the Alcan Aquarium, the hope of a marine life attraction in the city has been renewed.
Tourisme Montreal and the Jim Pattison Group, the parent company of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, have apparently been discussing the feasibility of building a new aquarium in the Old Port. Nothing has been confirmed, but there is a chance we may see a new Montreal Aquarium in the coming years.
But do we need a new aquarium in Montreal, especially when such a dark history precedes it? It's not like the original was ever that profitable, nor has Montreal demonstrated to be all that equipped to properly care for marine life. Here's to bettering what we already have, rather than installing a new attraction already tinged with regret.