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They Shoot Orcas, Don't They?

File this under weird BC history. The harpooning of Moby Doll.

Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett 13 May

Gil Hewlett joined the Vancouver Aquarium as the resident biologist in 1964. He has helped train many of the Aquarium's whales, including Skana and Hyak. Hewlett retired from the position of Assistant Director of Special Projects in March 2006.

Daniel Francis is the award-winning author of numerous textbooks and trade books on Canadian history, most recently Far West: The Story of British Columbia. He was a contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia and a contributing editor to the Junior Encyclopedia of Canada. He was editor of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia.

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In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium harpooned a whale near Saturna Island.

[Editor's note: The book Operation Orca (Harbour Publishing) recounts the efforts to save Springer in Puget Sound and Luna near Gold River from a lost whale's slow death. In the first of four excerpts that focus on B.C.'s history of orca captures, Francis and Hewlett recall a time not so long ago when the Vancouver Aquarium harpooned an orca that became known as Moby Doll, and simply didn't know what to do next.]

The beginning of the change in our attitudes about killer whales in British Columbia can be traced back to 1964 and the accidental capture of an orca dubbed Moby Doll. The Vancouver Aquarium was planning its first major expansion and director Murray Newman decided that a life-sized sculpture of a killer whale hanging from the ceiling in the entrance hall would make a dramatic welcome for visitors. There were no killer whales in any aquariums anywhere in the world at the time. The animal was thought to be far too dangerous to capture and put on display. Today we know so much about this fascinating marine mammal we forget that 50 years ago even an expert such as Murray Newman would have known almost nothing about its biology or its habits. And because so little was known, much was imagined.

Most fishermen hated killer whales, or blackfish as they called them, considering them rivals for the precious salmon on which they both depended for a living. Whenever possible, whales were shot on sight. The general public feared them as vicious man-eaters. The animal's easy sociability was interpreted as frightening aggression. The sight of a tall dorsal fin slicing through the water conjured up alarming images of man-eating sharks and other sinister "monsters" of the deep. The fact that the whales travelled in groups brought comparisons to wolves and other predators that hunted in packs. As Murray Newman remarks in his memoirs, the killer whale was considered "the marine world's Public Enemy Number One."

Fishermen, sport and commercial, were confident that the number of killer whales on the Pacific coast was growing and had to be controlled. In 1960, representatives of fishing organizations in the Campbell River area met with officials from the federal Department of Fisheries to discuss the prevalence of "blackfish" in Discovery Passage. Various remedies were proposed, including bombing the animals from the air.

The machine gun at Seymour Narrows

In the end, the fishermen convinced the government to install a Browning machine gun on a lookout on Quadra Island overlooking Seymour Narrows, northwest of Campbell River. The narrows were much used for coastal shipping and by killer whales on their travels along the coast. (In 1958 the government had planted 1,250 tonnes of explosives and blown up Ripple Rock, a dangerous obstacle to navigation in the passage that had ripped open the hulls of dozens of vessels over the years.) It was expected that a gunner would kill as many whales as he could from his perch above the narrows and stop others from coming south into the Campbell River area. But as it turned out there was no shooting. Worried that a bullet might ricochet off the water and strike someone, the fisheries official responsible for the gun told the local people that the weapon was a potential forest fire hazard. Though it was mounted in June 1961, the gun was never fired. Still, the plan illustrates the degree to which killer whales were feared and hated along the coast.

Unhappily, the whales were not unique in this regard. British Columbia has a long history of intolerance and waste when it comes to marine animals. With the arrival of the earliest explorers on the coast in the late 18th century, sea otters began to be harvested for their luxurious pelts. Vessels from Britain and the United States visited the coast each summer, trading otter furs from the local First Nations and carrying them across the Pacific for sale in China. As a result, the animal was exterminated from the B.C. coast and was only reintroduced in the late 1960s.

Large whale species such as humpback, minke and gray were hunted from shore-based whaling operations starting in the 1860s. Industrial whaling was practiced from whaling stations on Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes between 1905 and 1967, when the last station at Coal Harbour closed. Humpbacks are a case in point. "Used to be humpbacks all over the place here," one old-timer told the researcher Alexandra Morton, referring to the inner coastal waters of the Broughton Archipelago. In the summer of 1952 a catcher boat came around from the station at Coal Harbour and wiped them out.

Seals and sea lions also fell victim to human predators, shot as pests that threatened the commercial fishery and, in the case of seals during the 1960s, for their skins. Between 1913 and 1969, more than 200,000 harbour seals were killed in British Columbia for pelts and bounties, and sea lions were systematically slaughtered in the name of predator control.

A particularly gruesome hunt targeted the basking shark, the second-largest fish in the world. At one time these creatures, which may reach fifteen metres in length, were abundant along the coast. For all their size they are peaceable giants, feeding on zooplankton in the nutrient-rich ocean waters close to the surface. They do not eat salmon or any other fish, but fishermen considered them a nuisance because they often became entangled in fishing gear. In 1949 the Department of Fisheries labelled them a "destructive pest" and in 1955 the department was persuaded to take aggressive action against the sharks in Barkley Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where they were especially prevalent.

A large triangular cutting blade was mounted on the bow of a fisheries patrol vessel, the Comox Post. This knife could be lowered just below the surface of the water. When the vessel drove straight into a lounging shark, the blade sliced the animal in half. Between 1955 and 1969, when the blade was in use, hundreds of sharks were slaughtered in the sound. "The great shark slaughter began at noon and continued for hours," wrote a reporter who witnessed one of these excursions in 1956. "We littered the beaches with their livers and the bottom with their carcasses." Other fisheries vessels that were not equipped with the knife had orders to simply ram any sharks they encountered in the hope of killing them. Basking sharks are today almost never encountered in Barkley Sound or anywhere else on the coast.

The harpoon at East Point

Basically, it was open season on any marine animal that seemed to interfere with the fishery or had some commercial value of its own, including the killer whale. Nonetheless, Murray Newman wanted to catch one so enough information could be gathered about its physical features to allow an artist to make an accurate sculpture.

The Aquarium director had one precedent on which to draw. Two years earlier, in the summer of 1962, two marine mammal collectors from California had arrived in B.C. with their 12-metre boat, intending to lasso themselves a killer whale. The idea seemed absurd to most locals, but Frank Brocato and "Boots" Calandrino had a lot of experience wrangling marine animals in the wild, principally for Marineland of the Pacific outside Los Angeles. Their boat was equipped with a long boom extending from its bow, at the end of which was a pulpit where one of the collectors positioned himself to drop a net over the animal and get a rope around its tail.

Brocato and Calandrino managed to find and lasso a female killer whale off Point Roberts, but as the animal attempted to escape she wrapped the line around the boat's propeller. The female's distress call was answered by a large bull and the two whales charged the boat in tandem, veering aside only at the last moment. The collectors, thinking they were under attack, killed the female with a high-powered rifle and drove the male away. Discouraged and not a little rattled from their adventure, they returned to California empty-handed.

The example of Brocato and Calandrino showed how difficult it was to capture a killer whale alive, and initially Newman expected that he would have to kill one. He was advised that the best place to go looking for whales was at the eastern end of Saturna Island, where they often passed close to the sandstone bluffs. There the Aquarium director installed his team, including Sam Burich, a sculptor who also happened to be a commercial fisherman, Ronald Sparrow, another commercial fisherman from the Musqueam First Nation who had experience with a harpoon, a team of volunteer watchers and a patrol vessel on loan from the department of fisheries. They arrived on Saturna on May 22 and set up a camp on the bluff near East Point, opposite Tumbo Island.

While they waited for the whales to appear, Sparrow and Burich practiced with the muzzle-loading harpoon gun, shooting at a raft the patrol boat towed past. As the days lengthened into months, members of the team drifted away. When Ronald Sparrow left to go halibut fishing, he was replaced at the harpoon by Josef Bauer, another commercial fisherman who had a long association with the Vancouver Aquarium. So Burich and Bauer were alone and more than a little bored on July 16 when a pod of killer whales entered the channel. As one of the animals cruised close to shore, Burich took aim and fired. The harpoon struck the whale in the back, just ahead of the dorsal fin. Stunned, the animal hardly reacted at all. Two other members of the pod swam over and seemed to lift the wounded whale to the surface so it could breathe, and it occurred to Bauer that they might be able to make a live capture.

A 'perfectly dreadful' disposition

Alerted at his office in Vancouver, Newman jumped into a seaplane for the trip to Saturna. By the time he arrived, the two "whale hunters" were out beside the stricken animal in a boat that a fishing company had loaned them. Pat McGeer had also arrived. A professor of neurochemistry at UBC, McGeer was a Liberal member of the provincial legislature and a future cabinet minister in Bill Bennett's government. He had joined the whale project because he was eager to get a chance to examine the brain of such a large mammal.

Everyone was very nervous, fearing what the animal or the other pod members might do. Jack Scott, a writer for the Vancouver Sun, had summed up the attitude toward killer whales earlier in the summer. "No one can say for sure how a killer whale will react if the harpoon does not strike a vital spot and, moreover, there's every likelihood that the other bulls in the pack will attack the ship itself, as they have been known to do in the past. Since the bull killer whale runs to 25 feet (7.6 m) in length and has a mouthful of teeth and disposition that can only be described as perfectly dreadful, the possibilities are downright chilling." But right from the beginning, the whale contradicted everything that had been believed about it and made no aggressive moves against its captors.

Newman had no idea what to do. The plan had been to kill a whale, measure it, dissect it and take whatever they needed for study. Instead, they had a live animal and nowhere to put it. The four men decided on the spot to attempt moving the wounded whale across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver, where Newman made arrangements to house it temporarily at Burrard Drydock on the North Shore. Running all night, Burich and Bauer managed to tow the whale "like a dog on a leash" to North Vancouver, and the next afternoon it took up residence in a netted area of the dry dock.

Moby Doll -- the name was chosen from entries to a radio contest -- caused an immediate sensation. It was not every day that a fearsome killer of the deep was available for public viewing. Stories appeared in media around the world. Scientists from across North America flew in to observe what was going on. When Burrard Drydock opened its doors to visitors, 20,000 people showed up, about the same number as flocked to see the Beatles that summer when they arrived in town to play Empire Stadium in their first stop on a North American tour.

The ling cod and the telltale penis

So little was known about killer whales that no one even knew what sex Moby was or what it ate. The first question was answered by a four-year-old girl who visited the pen. "What's that?" she innocently asked her father, pointing at Moby's suddenly visible penis. Until then everyone had assumed that he was a she.

The second question was more pressing, since the whale did not eat for almost two months despite being offered a wide variety of food, including seal carcasses, poultry, whale tongues and blubber, even an octopus. As yet it was not understood that unlike their transient cousins, resident killer whales such as Moby ate only fish. This discovery was made finally when a visitor to the pen held out a lingcod and Moby took it. Offered another, he ate that one, too. Before the feeding was over, Moby had devoured fifty kilograms of cod and taught his keepers another lesson about killer whales.

After several days in the dry dock, the Aquarium moved Moby across Burrard Inlet to a purpose-built enclosure at the Jericho military base on the Point Grey waterfront. Pat McGeer ministered to the animal's medical needs, using a huge hypodermic needle at the end of a three-metre pole to inject Moby with antibiotics and vitamins. Once started, he ate hungrily. But something was wrong, and on Oct. 9, less than three months after he was captured, Moby Doll died. The cause of death was aspergillosis, a fungal disease that invaded his lungs.

Sam Burich, who had been one of Moby's caretakers throughout his captivity, completed his sculpture for the Aquarium. (It hung for years in the foyer until it was removed to make way for a new pavilion.) But his widow Helen recalled that his experience with Moby altered his attitude toward killer whales. The artist seemed to bond with the animal. He recognized its intelligence and gentleness and regretted the role he had played in removing it from the wild.

Burich's change of heart was symptomatic of the change that took place in the wider community during and after the Moby Doll episode. For the first time people had had a chance to get close to a killer whale. Instead of a fearsome man-eating predator, they discovered an amiable creature that was endearing and apparently smart. Scientists and members of the public alike began to suspect that they had been wrong about "public enemy number one."

However, Moby Doll's capture also had a downside for the animal. As Murray Newman noted in his memoirs, "the age of innocence was over" for killer whales. Once it became known that Marineland of the Pacific had been willing to pay $25,000 to obtain Moby, killer whales everywhere had price tags on their heads. Notice was served that major aquariums wanted live specimens and would pay handsomely for them. The result was the equivalent of a maritime gold rush, and sea-going "prospectors" set out to find the motherlode.

For the next two weeks on Tuesday and Friday, The Tyee will run excerpts from Operation Orca, by historian Daniel Francis and whale researcher Gil Hewlett, a Harbour Publishing book. On Friday, the authors look at the flood of whale dealers that beset the B.C. coast.

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