Homeless in Vancouver: The triumph or tragedy of Moby Doll

After my post about protesters attending the Vancouver Aquarium’s gala opening last week, my binner friend, the Green Guy, responded with a story of his own about the Vancouver Aquarium’s first captive cetacean: Moby Doll.

I’d actually never heard about it. It was a crazy, almost unbelievable, tale—a tragedy of errors—about a harpooned killer whale that refused to die and an improvised viewing pen at the Burrard drydocks and crowds of spectators who had never dreamed of seeing a killer whale in the flesh. Then the killer whale died, just like that. The end.

Except it was just the beginning of keeping cetaceans in captivity.

Truth in Vancouver is often more embarrassing than fiction

The story, in brief: in 1964, orcas, or killer whales as they were still called, were little understood and much feared. They were mysterious and dramatic-looking creatures of the ocean, and the eight-year-young Vancouver Aquarium wanted a life-size fiberglass model of a “killer whale” for their new British Columbia Hall. They needed a specimen, so they hired a fellow by the name of Samuel Burich to hunt down and kill them one.

On July 16, 1964, Burich shot a small, 4.6-metre male orca with a harpoon from a gun mounted on the rocky shore of Saturna Island’s East Point. Burich later regaled reporters with his “Ahab” moment:

“I picked out one that seemed a little smaller than the others. It looked me right in the eye and I looked right back…I just let her have it.”

Two hours after being harpooned, and several rifle shots later, the whale still lived.

Witnesses said that the wounded whale was repeatedly saved from drowning by other members of its pod that pushed it to the surface so it could breathe.

After consultation with the Vancouver Aquarium’s director, Murray Newman, there was a change of plan. The one-ton orca was instead dragged back, for 16 hours, to Vancouver by it’s harpoon line to be put on public display in a hastily built pen at the Burrard Drydocks.

A new kind of captive audience

Finally some fish!

A radio contest chose a name for the orca, and “Moby Doll” became a local and international sensation. The first ever captive “killer whale” turned out to be quite docile (perhaps listless and dying would be more accurate). Tens of thousands of people came to see it, including many scientists and researchers involved in the developing field of oceanography.

The orca died after three months in captivity, reportedly from skin disease and a fungal growth in its lungs (the harpoon and rifle bullets notwithstanding). It wouldn’t eat until the 55th day of its captivity because it honestly didn’t occur to anyone until then to offer it fish.

It’s hard for me to believe that such an ugly spectacle of slow death could give birth to the widespread practice of keeping whales in captivity—but it did. Moby Doll ended up being just the first orca to die in captivity.

The Vancouver Aquarium went on to display seven orcas until 2001, when their very ill orca named Bjossa was shipped to SeaWorld San Diego, where she died in October of that year.

The Vancouver Aquarium still keeps two beluga whales, two dolphins, and two harbour propoises. Since 1996, they have been forbidden by municipal law from capturing cetaceans (whales and dolphins) from the wild for display purposes. They may still obtain cetaceans from other facilities if they were born in captivity, captured before 1996, or were rescued and deemed unreleasable after this date.

A planned expansion of the Vancouver Aquarium will make even more room for whales—and perhaps not just for its two belugas.

Back in February, the current president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, John Nightingale, admitted it was “likely” the aquarium would bring in more large marine mammals.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… whales

The mindset of the the aquarium today is little changed from that of 40 years ago. As an institution, it still believes that the capture and display of cetaceans is worth it for the sake of scientific research and general human understanding.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s founding director, Murray Newman, certainly believed that. He was the man who originally wanted a dead orca and then gave the go ahead to capture Moby Doll alive.

At a news conference following the death of Moby Doll in October, 1964, Newman told reporters with the Vancouver Sun and the Montreal Gazette:

“I loved that whale. I think that capturing it was the best thing I ever did.”

He loved it so much he immediately announced plans to capture another one.

Moby Doll’s personal physician, by the way, was Dr. Pat McGeer, then a University of British Columbia scientist and the elected MLA for the constituency of Vancouver–Point Grey. He went on to be member of the British Columbia cabinet in several Social Credit governments between 1976 and 1986.

In 1964, Dr. McGeer initially told the media that Moby Doll had died of exhaustion resulting from a lack of salt in the water, forcing the giant mammal to swim harder to reach the surface for air.

In 2013, the Moby Doll Orca Symposium was held on Saturna Island to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of what the aquarium, at least, wants to be seen as very positive event.

That same year, the somewhat searing Blackfish documentary about a SeaWorld orca was released to wide acclaim.

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Carol
If we are to fight to save the whales being slaughtered in the wild, why is that we allow the whales to die slowly in captivity? This in fact, is more cruelty to the animal than the Japanese hunting them in the wild - this must be taken to Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace - we as individuals don't seem to be gaining any ground to the halt of this outrageous behaviour - we can stop the lions and elephants in the circus - is this not the same?
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anonymous
@Carol

Perhaps a big problem with whales and dolphins stems from the fact that no matter how may times you say "marine mammal" people still see fish and fish may be preserved for their potential usefulness to humans, not for their own sake.

Killing cetaceans quickly robs society of a valuable utility -- all those years they could be entertaining us?

Closer to home: it's illegal for a tobacco company executive to kill someone quickly but legal to kill them slowly with cigarettes.

why is that? Because in the later instance the smoker forks out lots of tobacco tax before they die?

I'm sure whales are as confused by our attitude as we are.
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