The story of Moby Doll, the orca, is sad and short.
Fifty years after the event, orca scientists and enthusiasts gathered on Saturna Island where it all began. The story may be new to you, as it was to me, yet it is likely that Moby Doll’s capture and display marked the beginning of a sea change in peoples’ attitude to killer whales.
Today, the sight of a pod of orcas cruising the Strait of Georgia brings ferry passengers rushing to the railings, cameras at the ready. In the 1960s, it was still thought quite acceptable to harpoon a whale.
The sold-out crowd of 200 people at the Moby Doll Orca Symposium on Saturna Island on May 24 wanted to reflect on “the changes in attitude and the deeper understanding we have developed towards Orcinus orca in the past 50 years”. Those changes have been profound.
Orcas, or killer whales, were traditionally feared, revered, and respected by the indigenous people of the coast. That sentiment morphed with the growth of commercial salmon fisheries into one of dislike and aggression, as the so-called “blackfish” were seen as dangerous competitors for fish. No one thought it was safe to come near them and it was not uncommon to shoot them. Little was known about their natural history, and they were still scientifically unstudied by the 1960s.
In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium, which had been in operation for eight years, planned to harvest a killer whale for dissection, study, and use as a model for a realistic statue at the entrance to their facility. A team from the aquarium headed to Saturna, the southernmost of the Gulf Islands, and set up a harpoon on the rocks of East Point, now part of the National Park Reserve.
In due course, a pod of orcas arrived, and the five-metre-long Moby Doll was harpooned. Unexpectedly, it failed to die, as two other members of the pod swam to support it at the ocean's surface. The aquarium team realized that they could bring the relatively calm animal back alive, and towed it 65 kilometres back to Vancouver.
They called it Moby Doll, mistaking the young male for a female, and exhibited him in a pen in the harbour, where he created a sensation. The public and media flocked to visit.
This was the first ever captive orca and as described by the Saturna symposium organizers, it “triggered a goldrush” on young orcas. Dozens were subsequently captured and put on display in aquariums around the world. The intelligent animals were often taught tricks, and would perform in shows.
Moby Doll was a member of the southern resident population, which eat fish, not marine mammals. This simple fact was overlooked when coaxing the captive orca to eat, a problem that was solved once it was offered ling cod.
Southern residents, which roam southern B.C. and Washington State waters, are one of several populations of coastal killer whales. There are also northern resident orcas from Johnstone Strait northward, and transient orcas, which travel in small groups and prey on seals and other marine mammals. Offshore populations, only discovered in the early 1990s, travel in large groups as they range from 20 to 50 kilometres offshore, between California and Alaska.
Murray Newman, curator of the Vancouver Aquarium at the time of Moby Doll’s capture, was amazed by the orca’s gentle, docile nature. He realized that it was communicating with a series of whistles, grunts and squeals.
According to a newspaper account of the day, Newman considered his whale to be “the most magnificent of all animals”.
Still going strong 50 years later, the researcher said: “I always believed that live animals are more valuable than dead animals, especially for teaching young children and changing our attitudes.” He was the first of a long line of dedicated scientists who became engrossed with orcas.
The late Michael Bigg pioneered the study of orcas in the wild during the 1970s, and enlisted public support in counting the 300 or so orcas on the B.C. coast. Along with other researchers such as Pat McGeer, Graeme Ellis, John Ford, and Kenneth Balcomb, Bigg dramatically changed public attitudes to orcas. Increasing discoveries were made about the complex communications of the whales, which allow them to stay in touch with their family groups, or pods, and maintain extensive associations between pods over generations.
As more became known about the whales, public sympathy flowed towards them. The sight of such large, free-ranging, long-lived, and intelligent animals cooped into display tanks or forced to do tricks became anathema to many people, and reaction to the capture of orcas grew. In 1976, a court settlement against Sea World in California halted the removal of any more whales from the wild, but those still in aquariums lived out their lives in captivity.
In the 1980s, whale watching was becoming a more frequent tourism activity for coastal visitors, creating intense excitement about marine mammals of all kinds but particularly orcas. The interest in wild whales coincided with a steep decline in the southern resident orca population. The causes are complex: the loss of whales taken for aquariums through the 1960s and 1970s, ocean warming and declining fish populations, degradation of habitats, industrial pollution and toxic contamination, particularly PCBs, and even sonar from naval vessels.
The southern resident orcas were listed as endangered species in Canada and, in the U.S., Ecojustice successfully took the Canadian government to court to enforce the habitat provision of the Species at Risk Act. Groups such as the Georgia Strait Alliance, People for Puget Sound, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and B.C. Nature advocated for protected areas for whales. Proposed sanctuaries include the Orca Pass International Stewardship Area around the southern Gulf and San Juan Islands, and the Southern Gulf Islands National Marine Conservation Area.
Citizen science contributes to observations of whales. In the mid-1990s, the Orca Network’s whale sighting group began on Whidbey Island, Washington, and grew into a comprehensive network of over 1,500 participants across the Salish Sea. The similar B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network is a conservation and research program of Vancouver Aquarium and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Moby Doll survived just three months in captivity but sparked an interest in orcas and other whales that shows no sign of decline nearly 50 years later. His death was national news. Twenty years later, Haida artist Bill Reid’s impressive bronze statue of an orca was erected outside the Vancouver Aquarium.
Some of the scientists involved in the unprecedented capture and study of Moby Doll and subsequent years of research on orcas, were at the Saturna Island symposium. Murray Newman and Pat McGeer delighted the audience with their amazing memories of that time. Other participants included John Ford, Kenneth Balcomb, and Lance Barrett-Lennard, the current head cetologist at the Vancouver Aquarium. It was a historic gathering.