A brief history of orca and people

By Briony Penn, July/August 2013

A recent symposium of whale researchers examined the progress we’ve made in understanding these once-reviled creatures.

As a child in the 1930s my mother saw a rare pod of what she called “blackfish” from her rowboat in Haro Strait and was terrified. The conventional wisdom of colonial society then was that they were “killer” whales, rejected by the whalers for not being oily enough and shot indiscriminately as ruthless killers. 

By 1955 there was still nothing that could dispel the aura of fear around these marine mammals. And fear unleashed brutality: A machine gun was mounted on Quadra Island near Ripple Rock, ready to shoot the killers as they passed by. Coincidently, that same year, Murray Newman, fresh from a doctorate in ichthyology at UBC’s zoology department, was hired as the first director of the Vancouver Aquarium, at the time hardly more than a series of fish tanks. 

That same year, zoologist Ian McTaggart Cowan, head of UBC’s zoology department, set up a marine station at East Point on Saturna Island to teach his students marine biology. He was also starting the first CBC television nature show, forerunner to The Nature of Things, and was filming from the beaches of Saturna the first TV footage of such marvels as hooded nudibranchs and plankton with his new invention of a television camera mounted on a microscope. 

East Point happens to be on the main migration route for the southern resident orcas following the Chinook, and the resident pods had been swimming by fairly predictably over the years. So when Newman sought Cowan’s advice on where to get an orca specimen—for a skeleton and a sculpture by artist Sam Burich for the aquarium—Cowan suggested East Point. 

In 1964 plans were hatched to kill a whale and a harpoon was set up at East Point. After months of lying in wait, Burich and Joe Bauer, the fisherman hired to harpoon the whale, managed to injure a young male on the first shot they made. They chose not to kill him after two adult orcas helped the wounded baby to the surface. Instead, it was towed across the strait to a corner of a flooded drydock in North Vancouver. Overnight the obviously intelligent mammal—named “Moby Doll” in a public contest—changed the way people thought about orca, starting the world-wide phenomena of whale watching and research. 

This spring, Saturna Island hosted a symposium to celebrate 50 years of orca research in BC with three generations of scientists represented: from Newman, now well into his 90s, to Peter Ross, the latest casualty of Prime Minister Harper’s cutbacks to the scientific community. The representatives of each generation have  made enormous international contributions to conservation and the health of our oceans. It was a spectacular event to honour everything that is great about the coast, our scientific community and the values of coastal people who spend time observing marine life. 

At the symposium, the story of Moby Doll’s capture was told by Murray Newman and Patrick McGeer. McGeer, still practicing as a neurological researcher, had got involved initially just to do a post mortem on the brain, but ended up in charge of treating his wounds and figuring out what to feed him. Zoologists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute came to record vocalizations. Newman spoke of the emotional bonding after witnessing an animal capable of a language, social organization and social intelligence—connecting in an unprecedented way with the 20,000 people who came to see him in the three months he survived, including Prime Minister Trudeau. 

The era of orcas in marine aquariums was launched and spread around the world. Bob Wright had seen Moby Doll, which led to his opening Victoria’s Sealand. Newman observed that in that era, “the live animals proved more important than the dead animals” in generating an appreciation for ocean life. During that time, the last whaling stations were closed; the shooting of orcas was stopped; McTaggart Cowan became Canada’s advisor to the International Whaling commission and provided  an emphasis on conservation; and Farley Mowat wrote A Whale for the Killing. 

Just as Newman had pioneered the concept of whale aquariums, it was the next generation of aquarium scientists, like John Ford, who pioneered the subsequent era of watching orca in the wild. Ford, at age nine, had been one of the onlookers when Moby had been brought in and it ignited his interest in marine life. Having observed that captivity was untenable for these highly social, migratory animals, and a poor substitute for observing them in the wild, he worked with Michael Biggs, another graduate of the UBC zoology department. 

Under Cowan’s directorship, researchers were encouraged in the recognition of individual animals as a way of understanding behavior. Cowan had pioneered this type of work with wolves and Biggs developed the system of observing distinctive characteristics of individual orcas through vocalizations and physical markings. He started the work of separating out the resident fish-eating pods, with their characteristic dialects, from the silent marine-mammal-eating transients—now called Biggs whales. David Ellis followed in this tradition and built up the extensive photo ID program with which every whale-watching tour is equipped to point out members of J, K and L pods.

Ford told the symposium audience how we now can identify entire lineages of the different resident pods all the way to Alaska. We know matriarchs can live as long as 80 to 90 years and that as many as four generations of her clan will stay with her. We also know that over 75 percent of their diet is Chinook salmon— which relies on herring—and that maintaining healthy food supplies in the oceans is the key to their survival. When Chinook decline, as they did in the late ’70s and ’90s, so do our resident orca, while the rise in harbour seal populations has corresponded with a rise in Biggs whale sightings, who are now more commonly seen in the Salish Sea than the residents. We also now know that there is a third race of orca, the offshores, seen off the coast, who are primarily shark eaters, and that their sightings are increasing. 

Ford suggested that whale watchers, acting respectfully, are not a big problem for orca. As a federal Fisheries and Ocean’s director of cetacean research, he wasn’t at liberty to say what the real threats were, so that was left to Ken Balcomb of the Centre for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Balcomb has been doing whale censuses since 1976. The main threats on his list are open net fish farms which release viruses that kill wild salmon; dams and hydro projects which reduce salmon populations; overfishing; and hatcheries that diminish the genetic diversity of wild salmon stocks. 

Lance Barret-Lennard, who studies the variability of the cultures of orca, told the symposium how these different cultures are critically reliant on the matriarchs to transmit behaviours, whether it is what to eat, how to recognize threats or how to prevent inbreeding. This fact presents a conservation challenge as to how to protect not only habitat, but the matriarchs who guide their pods through it. 

Finally, Peter Ross had some good news, despite a gloomy prognosis for government support. Although orca in our waters are the most contaminated animals on Earth, from the possible 100,000 chemicals released into the Salish Sea, there are signs that some of the big poisons are declining. PCBs banned in 1977 are starting to show signs of diminishing in the lipid content of fat in orca. Dioxins are going down and much of that is due to controls on pulp mill effluent. Fire surfactants, or PBDEs, are due to be banned next year. These chemicals are hormone mimickers, which have a profound effect on reproduction.

None of these scientists are going to accept the recent dismantling of environmental legislation from Ottawa without a fight, especially in light of news that the resident orca population has declined to 82, the lowest in more than a decade. The parting words from Ross were that we ignore toxicity of the ocean at our peril, as well as that of orca. He will continue to mentor others and lobby for political action. Ironically, it was Pat McGeer, a Liberal and Socred provincial politician for 24 years, who made the strongest call to action, not just for the orca, but for the Chinook and herring. He was seconded by Pat Carney, a Conservative senator responsible for championing the protection of the site where Moby Doll was captured—East Point lighthouse. One year from now marks the 50th anniversary of Moby’s capture, so Saturna might well become the place where another international tipping point is reached: when political conservatives realize that the conservation of the oceans is in their interests too.

Briony Penn, PhD is currently working on a biography of Ian McTaggart Cowan.