Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Hunting Orcas in the Salish Sea

Jun 1, 2013


Attention was paid in the press last week to a conference of orca experts taking place on Saturna Island, one of the southern Gulf Islands on the British Columbia coast. The conference was a commemoration of sorts of the first-ever live capture of a killer whale on July 16, 1964, at East Point on Saturna. (Details of the capture and the conference are here.)

Moby Doll, as the animal was christened, was towed to the North Vancouver waterfront where he was installed in a flooded drydock. That is the director of the Vancouver Aquarium, Murray Newman (above), feeding Moby. It was Newman who had initiated the capture in the first place.

Moby Doll's presence attracted international attention -- he was the first killer whale displayed in public -- and 20,000 curiosity seekers flocked to the drydock to see him. Unhappily, less than three months after his capture, he died of a lung infection.

The impact of Moby Doll was profound and is detailed in Operation Orca, the book that marine biologist Gil Hewlett and I wrote about killer whales on the BC coast. During his captivity, a California marine park offered to buy Moby Doll for $25,000. Suddenly the animal had a price tag on its head. Before Moby, orcas were considered too dangerous to be displayed to the public. After Moby, every marine park and aquarium in the world wanted one, and were willing to pay handsomely.

The sequel to the Moby Doll story played out a year later on the central BC coast. Near the tiny hamlet of Namu, a pair of salmon fishermen inadvertently trapped two killer whales in one of their nets. Within a few hours they had sent word to the outside world that the animals were for sale, $25,000 each. There were prospective buyers interested but the price was too steep given the remoteness of Namu and the challenge of somehow transporting a whale south. In the end Ted Griffin, owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, purchased one of the whales, an adult male, for $8,000 cash.

Griffin's crew managed to throw together a floating pen made of steel bars, empty oil drums and fish netting. The whale, christened Namu, was coaxed inside the pen which was then towed by tugboat 700 kilometres south to Seattle. Gil, my co-author, was along for the ride, on loan from the Vancouver Aquarium where he worked. He left a moving eye-witness account of the trip which we describe in our book.

After three weeks a small flotilla of boats arrived in Seattle with Namu, who for a while was the most famous whale in the world. Hollywood even made a motion picture, "Namu the Killer Whale," starring Robert Lansing. He was the first whale held in an aquarium, the progenitor of all those Shamus that are still held in captivity, until a year later he became entangled in the cables of his pen and drowned.

The significance of these pioneer orca in captivity -- Moby Doll and Namu -- was that their benign behaviour and lack of aggression contradicted the long-held notion that orca were man-eating monsters, wolves of the sea. Instead they appeared to be intelligent, playful creatures with much to teach their captors. While the 1960s was open season on BC's orcas -- many were captured for export all over the world before the practice was banned in 1972 -- it also began the transformation of the killer whale from monster to icon.