A porpoise skull used countless times for marine education was stolen from the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea this month.
The Sidney-based non-profit aquarium and learning centre says the skull disappeared at some point during the day on Jan. 8. A employee who dusts the exhibits noticed it was missing from its display on Jan. 9.
“Something that is not a model – that is real and true – is very unique,” said Tina Kelly, director of learning and communications for the aquarium. “It’s not really replaceable.”
The majority of the Shaw Centre’s marine mammal artifacts were donated and handed down from the Marine Ecology Centre, the facility replaced by the current aquarium in 2009.
The porpoise skull was not in pristine condition, Kelly points out, but that’s because it had been used repeatedly for school groups, visitors and off-site education programs.
“The lower jaw is missing and some teeth are missing … it was loved and it speaks to the number of people that have been taught with it over the years,” Kelly said.
The aquarium closed for several months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when it reopened in June, several items were moved around during efforts to create space for physical distancing. The skull was moved to a high-traffic location near the exit – a location almost always supervised by staff or volunteers.
“How it happened is quite a mystery to us,” Kelly said. “It was just really disappointing to see that it was taken. We’ve never had anything happen like this before.”
The theft comes as a blow to the centre, especially after a year of adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic and a massive loss in revenue. But Kelly said the non-profit and its team have come back strong from setbacks before.
One silver lining has emerged, Kelly notes, in the form of community support. After posting about the theft on Facebook, dozens of people shared the post and expressed their support for the aquarium.
“We didn’t expect it to become a touch point for so many people,” she said. “What we’ve seen, when we go through the comments, is we have support behind us, people appreciate what we do. It does make the loss a little bit easier to bear when we know people really value us as a facility.”