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Era of the Orca Cowboys

In the mid 1960s, whale wrangling became a coastal spectacle.

Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett 16 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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Ted Griffin rides Namu.

[Editor's note: The book Operation Orca (Harbour) recounts human efforts to save Springer in Puget Sound and Luna near Gold River from a lost whale's slow death. In this second of four excerpts that focus on B.C.'s history of whale wrangling, Francis and Hewlett recount the initial rush to capture whales, and scientist Paul Spong's falling out with the Vancouver Aquarium.]

The tiny coastal hamlet of Namu lies on the mainland shore of the Inside Passage about 120 kilometres north of Port Hardy, where coastal boat traffic takes a sharp right turn and heads up Burke Channel toward Bella Coola. Archaeologists have discovered that people have lived there for 10,000 years, making it the oldest known inhabited place on the B.C. coast. Little evidence remains today, but not long ago, Namu was the site of a thriving cannery village with a population of several hundred people during the summer fishing season. It had a café and store, bunkhouses and bungalows for the plant workers and managers, net lofts, an ice plant, even a two-room schoolhouse, all connected by a lacework of sturdy boardwalks.

And in the summer of 1965, the circus came to town.

It began innocently enough. Late on the evening of June 22, a local salmon fisherman named Bill Lechkobit was caught in a sudden gale south of Namu, at the mouth of Warrior Cove. To avoid being swept onto the rocks, Lechkobit cut loose his net and headed for a safe harbour. Early the next morning, his friend and fellow seiner Bob McGarvey emerged from the cove to find two killer whales trapped inside the abandoned net. One was an adult bull, about 6.5 metres long; the other was a young calf.

As McGarvey watched, the current suddenly opened the end of the net and he saw the bull swim free, only to return inside the circle of mesh when the calf would not follow. McGarvey and Lechkobit, who had returned to the scene, realized they had a prize on their hands. Moby Doll had received so much publicity that fishermen all along the coast knew the value of a live killer whale.

They secured the captives with more netting, and within a few hours they had sent word to the outside world that they had a couple of whales for sale. Prospective buyers, including the Vancouver Aquarium's Murray Newman, immediately flew to the tiny cannery village, but they were all dismayed by the asking price, $25,000 per whale. Which, of course, did not include the expense of transporting the animals south. The deal seemed even less attractive a few days later when the calf escaped. Since it was really the younger, smaller whale that the rival aquariums wanted, the captors found themselves with one remaining overpriced animal that might escape at any time and had a healthy appetite for salmon. Meanwhile, they weren't getting any fishing done.

McGarvey and his friend decided to make a final offer: "The first person here with $8,000 in cash gets the whale."

'Can anyone spare a few grand to buy a whale?'

This spurred Ted Griffin into action. Griffin was the 29-year-old owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, a facility he had opened on the city's waterfront in 1962. Unlike most of the other aquarium representatives, he was an entrepreneur and a showman, not a scientist. Griffin had long sought a killer whale for his facility. He had spent many hours patrolling Puget Sound by helicopter and boat looking for a specimen, and he wasn't about to let this one get away. He had already been up to Namu, but his initial offer had been refused.

When news of the final price reached him in Seattle, it was a Saturday night and the banks had closed. Griffin grabbed a couple of shopping bags and set out along the waterfront, calling on hotels and restaurants and writing them cheques for whatever cash they had in their tills. Before the weekend was over, his bags were stuffed with small bills and he was on a flight north, accompanied by a gun-toting former Mountie he picked up in Vancouver as a security detail.

Griffin got his whale, which he christened Namu. (Subsequent research has found that it was C11, a member of one of the northern resident pods. C11 was a 20-year-old male whose mother, C5, known as Kwattna, lived until 1995, when she died at the ripe old age of 71.) He then faced the challenge of moving his four-tonne acquisition 700 kilometres along some of the most treacherous waters on the Pacific coast. Although no one knew it at the time, Griffin was pioneering the technique that Springer's rescuers would use 37 years later. With the help of local fishermen, he welded several tonnes of steel bars into a three-sided pen about 12 by 18 metres and six metres deep, kept afloat by empty oil drums scavenged from a local salvage company. A net hung across the open side of the pen.

Meanwhile, other whales regularly visited Namu at Warrior Cove. Some of them were large males with dorsal fins towering two metres in the air. Others were cows and calves. Their high-pitched whistles and squeaks echoed against the rocky shore in a plaintive symphony. On one occasion, as many as three dozen whales showed up to support Namu, splashing around the net, tails lobbing and vocalizing. While most of these whales came and went, one cow and her two calves, presumably members of Namu's family group, remained near the net almost continuously.

Once Griffin got his makeshift cage into the water, it was towed to Warrior Cove, where Namu was coaxed into it. Griffin hired a local purse seiner, the Chamiss Bay, to tow the pen as far as Port Hardy, and on July 9, it set off, accompanied by the Robert E. Lee, a 10-metre pleasure tug owned by Seattle disc jockey Bob Hardwick. For the entire trip, a small group of journalists aboard the Lee filed daily stories about Namu's progress, building public interest in the operation. Also aboard the Lee was Gil Hewlett, a 24-year-old biologist "donated" by the Vancouver Aquarium to assist in the transfer. Hewlett was the lone Canadian involved in the expedition. Journalist Sylvia Fraser described him as "a handsome towhead who was never seen to wear shoes and who looked like a beach boy left over from the latest surf-side movie."

A violent goodbye

At Port Hardy, the Chamiss Bay left to go seining and the tow was taken up by the Ivor Foss, a Seattle tug. Two hours out of Port Hardy, a group of about 10 whales were spotted in the distance converging on the pen. Hewlett described what happened in his journal. "When they are within 300 yards of the pen, Namu lets out a terrifying squeal, almost like a throttled cat. He leaps out of the water and crashes against the left corner of the pen. There was terrific thrashing and he is making all kinds of sounds. Then they are there again, the same family of the cow and two calves. They came straight up behind the pen to about 10 feet away, tremendous squealing going on. Namu seemed to lose all co-ordination in the pen. He kept getting swept against the cargo net and swimming vigorously forward. The family unit circles around towards the end of the pen. Those of us on the pen are yelling and screaming at the top of our lungs. This is an incredible experience. The excitement is almost overwhelming."

Once the tow passed through Seymour Narrows, however, the other whales disappeared. (Years later researchers would learn that the narrows form a boundary between the typical ranges of the northern and southern residents.) On the southern coast, the little flotilla was joined by a growing fleet of pleasure boaters who were curious to see the captive killer. Members of the crew kept busy warning the sightseers to keep their distance. A team of researchers from the Boeing Company's acoustic division had arrived. They were taping Namu's vocalizations for possible application in anti-submarine warfare, and the constant roar of boat engines was interfering with their recording.

At one point, the whale developed blisters on his dorsal fin. Sunburn, it was decided. The convoy was stopped at Deep Bay, opposite the southern end of Denman Island, and Hewlett went off to track down some zinc oxide lotion. He telephoned Jane Van Roggen, a member of the Vancouver Aquarium board who was holidaying in the area and together they drove around to all the local pharmacies. "When we told the pharmacist we needed enough zinc oxide for a killer whale," Hewlett recalled, "he/she either laughed uncontrollably or looked at us incredulously, saying 'zinc oxide only comes in two-ounce tubes!' We bought every tube in the area and took them back to Deep Bay."

Attaching a brush to the end of a bamboo pole, Don Goldsberry, a collector from the aquarium in Tacoma who was part of the transfer team, painted the fin with the zinc oxide mixed with mineral oil. Namu didn't much like it -- indeed, after one coating, he wouldn't let Goldsberry get close again with the brush -- but it seemed to work. At Deep Bay, where the convoy was held up by storm warnings, two young boys with a boat charged 75 cents to take spectators out to view the whale. Meanwhile, at the village's only phone booth, journalists lined up to call in their stories.

Marketing Namu

On July 25, the saltwater caravan reached Deception Pass at the north end of Whidbey Island, where it paused to wait for a tide change. When Hewlett looked up at the bridge that spanned the pass, what he saw astonished him. "The bridge is crowded with people, as are the banks on both sides," Hewlett wrote in his journal. "There must be 5,000 people, with cars lined back for miles on each side. Namu rolls twice and then gave a smack with flukes. The crowd, upon seeing this, gave a cheer -- then the Lee and the Ivor blew their foghorns. I think for the first time, all of us realize how big this whole thing is."

Three days later, welcomed by a flotilla of boats, swooping helicopters, water skiers, go-go dancers and a brass band, Namu reached his future home at Pier 56 on the Seattle waterfront.

Namu was a public relations bonanza that Griffin, whose aquarium needed a financial shot in the arm, exploited to the limit. The whale's image appeared on everything from sweatshirts to colouring books. Namu was front-page news not just in Seattle but around the world. His voice was used at station breaks on Bob Hardwick's radio station. The pilots of passenger jets arriving at the airport reported on his health as routinely as they gave the local weather report. A nightclub launched a new dance craze, the "Namu," including moves like the dorsal, the spray and the dive. Griffin was filmed in his wetsuit riding on Namu's back, gripping the tall dorsal fin.

Within a year, the whale was starring in his own Hollywood movie, Namu the Killer Whale. In the film, a biologist played by the ruggedly handsome Robert Lansing convinces the people in a hostile coastal fishing community that killer whales are not the deadly predators they loathe and fear. Lansing actually did some of his own stunt work, going into the water to ride on Namu's back. These images of a benign, playful, endearing animal, no more dangerous than a large dolphin, reinforced the change that was taking place in the mind of the public about the nature of killer whales.

Namu lived for a year at the Seattle aquarium before he drowned by tangling himself in the cables of his pen trying to escape. But he turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for Ted Griffin, who continued to capture killer whales and sell them to other aquariums. One of these animals belonged to a pod of 15 whales that Griffin netted in Puget Sound early in 1967. Two of the captives drowned and Griffin released another five because they were too big for life in captivity, but one of the survivors remained available for purchase.

Up in Vancouver, Murray Newman was still eager to obtain a whale for his aquarium, and after a spirited debate, he managed to persuade his board of directors to approve the purchase. Griffin was trucking the whale to Vancouver anyway to exhibit in a tank at that year's boat show, and he accepted Newman's offer of $22,000. Walter the Whale, as he was then known, was transferred to the new dolphin pool in Stanley Park, and the Vancouver Aquarium had its first resident killer whale. Soon after, it was noticed that "Walter" was in fact a female, so another contest took place, resulting in a new name, Skana, roughly analogous to S'quana, the Haida word for killer whale.

Skana and the hippie Spong

The presence of Skana at the Aquarium created new possibilities for scientific research. While her trainers taught her an assortment of manoeuvres to showcase her dexterity and intelligence, and impress the thousands of spectators who flocked to see her, a battery of researchers from the aquarium and from the University of British Columbia began studying her behaviour and recording her vocalizing.

Among these scientists was a psychologist named Paul Spong. Spong was a 28-year-old New Zealander with a freshly minted PhD from UCLA, who had just taken a position in the psychiatry department at UBC. At the aquarium, he began by devising a series of tests to evaluate Skana's visual abilities and the ways in which she used visual information to solve problems. He was able to determine that the visual acuity of killer whales was in the same range as that of a cat. Spong began using music instead of food as a reward in his experiments, and he became aware of the whale's response to different sounds. He would play classical music for Skana and invite musicians down to the pool to play their instruments.

At the same time, Spong found himself drawn to the whale emotionally. "Everything I was learning about them showed that this was an extraordinary animal in its sensory makeup and in its ability to modify its behaviour and learn things," he recalled. "I was still doing science because I was trying to do things in systematic experiments, but at the same time I was becoming more personally involved in the whales."

Spong would sit at the edge of the pool with his feet in the water and Skana would swim over to have her back rubbed. On one occasion Skana dragged her teeth across Spong's feet, not biting but serving notice that she could. Startled, Spong jerked his feet out of the water, but he put them back in and Skana once again showed her teeth. After several repetitions, Spong no longer felt afraid and Skana stopped her mock attacks on his feet. As a result of this and other experiences, the scientist became convinced that he was the object of Skana's experiments every bit as much as she was the object of his.

"All of this stuff was really starting to open my eyes," Spong later recalled. "What on earth was this animal that we've got here? Other things were happening too. I was still interested in acoustics and I was interested in using acoustics to find out things like, how high a sound can a whale hear? I was also interested because I was personally intrigued by the whale in a more personal interaction. That's when I started coming down and sitting on the edge of the little training platform at the edge of Skana's pool with my feet in the water. She would come over and I would rub my feet on her head and got to know her a bit more personally.

"It was also at the point where I was making sounds underwater to her and looking at the way she oriented to them. I had this little brass bell and I would ring it on the rung of the ladder in the pool and she loved it. She would come over and hang upside down motionless while I was ringing the bell. With the front of her head fairly close to the bell. This is so consistent with the way in which it was understood that hearing occurs in dolphins where you have a sound that is transmitted through the lower jaw up into middle ear. So it was also confirming in orcas about what was happening with dolphins."

Spong's research aside, his lifestyle was increasingly at odds with the culture of the Vancouver Aquarium. It was the '60s and the baby boom generation had embarked on its flirtation with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. In Vancouver this youth movement sometimes seemed to be at war with the older generation. Its mouthpiece was the Georgia Straight newspaper, launched in May 1967, and its enemy was Mayor Tom Campbell, whose intolerance of the so-called counterculture manifested itself in several draconian efforts to get the hippies off the streets, including the attempted use of the War Measures Act to "clean up" the city.

Spong embraced the zeitgeist with enthusiasm. His beads, beard and long hair didn't rate a second look in the hippie hangouts of Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood, but he stood out around the whale pool, where, by Newman's own admission, "My staff were mostly a pretty clean-cut bunch of people." Eventually Spong's personal views would lead to a rupture with the aquarium. But whatever antagonisms existed were put aside in the third week of February 1968, when news reached the Aquarium that a pod of killer whales had appeared suddenly in a bay in Pender Harbour.

Operation Orca, by historian Daniel Francis and whale researcher Gil Hewlett, is a Harbour Publishing book. Next Tuesday, in the third excerpt, the authors look at events that turned the tide of opinion against whale capture.  [Tyee]

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