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How Not to Ship a Whale

The Flamingo Land saga, and other orca horror stories.

Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett 20 May

Operation Orca, by historian Daniel Francis and whale researcher Gil Hewlett, is a Harbour Publishing book. On Friday, in the final excerpt, the authors look at the ironies that attend our growing understanding of a West Coast icon.

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Paul Spong with the albino Chimo and Haida.

[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 third of four excerpts on B.C.'s history of whale wrangling, Francis and Hewlett explore more wacky tales of fishermen, showmen, and a pair of unlikely teenagers trying to acquire orcas for public display.]

Pender Harbour is a complex jumble of islands, coves and lagoons on the Sunshine Coast about 75 kilometers northwest of Vancouver. The whales first appeared in Gunboat Bay at the head of the harbour, where they were discovered by local fisherman Sonny Reid. The pod exited the bay despite Reid's attempts to contain them but they returned the next day to Garden Bay, another arm of the harbour. Reid and some other fishermen managed to drop a net across the entrance to the bay and trap one of the whales, an adult male almost five metres long.

By the time Murray Newman flew in late that [February 1968] afternoon, the captive had been secured inside a large herring pond consisting of a bag-like net suspended from a frame of logs chained together in a square. The aquarium purchased the animal on the spot and officials decided to leave it for the time being in Garden Bay. Two months later, Reid and his friends captured seven more whales in the bay, and within a few days they had sold five of the animals to various aquariums in California. A crane scooped the animals from the water into waiting trucks, which transported them to the cargo planes that flew them south. No longer vilified and shot on sight, the killer whale had become British Columbia's newest export.

The Vancouver Aquarium purchased the two remaining captives -- a large bull and a calf -- so it now had three whales in Pender Harbour. Newman decided to establish a satellite facility in Garden Bay where the whales could be trained and studied and the public was welcome to watch. The facility, which was ready for its official opening by August, consisted of three large net pens circled by logs, with floating platforms where the captive whales could be observed. Everyone in Pender Harbour was excited at the prospect of the whales becoming a major tourist attraction.

The idea was to study killer whales in their near-natural environment and Spong took charge of the research effort. He continued to use music to stimulate and reward the whales and at times the whale exhibit took on the atmosphere of a countercultural "be-in" with long-haired musicians playing to and swimming with the animals. It was all a bit too "eccentric" for Murray Newman. More importantly, Spong had concluded that the whales -- Skana and the animals in Pender Harbour -- were suffering from sensory deprivation in captivity and should be set free. The smallest whale, Hyak, had been transferred to the main aquarium in Vancouver, and when the other two escaped from their Garden Bay pen, Newman decided to shut down the facility.

In retrospect, the capture and sale of the Pender Harbour whales seems inhumane, but at the time everyone involved assumed that there were thousands of the animals on the coast, and there was still a great deal of fear and animosity directed at them. Graeme Ellis, who, as an eighteen-year-old, was hired by the aquarium that summer to work around the pens, recalled the attitude that prevailed. "It's like a skeleton in my closet, when people ask me, 'You were involved in killer whale capture? How could you?' But at the time, that was what we did. It was just a natural chain of events. It was just happening . . ."

The following June, 1969, Spong's contract with the Vancouver Aquarium expired and Newman, irritated at his views on captivity and alienated by his lifestyle, did not renew it. Spong, who was more or less barred from the facility, camped outside the aquarium to protest Skana's continued confinement, and the episode ended with bad feelings on both sides. Subsequently, Spong was involved with Project Jonah and Greenpeace in their initial protests against commercial whaling, then later moved up the coast to Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait, where he established a research facility, OrcaLab, to monitor killer whales in the wild. His relations with the Vancouver Aquarium remained strained but he would still play a key role in efforts to relocate both Springer and Luna.

The teenagers and the French aristocrat

Lucrative as it sometimes was, killer whale collecting in the 1960s was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise that relied as much on chutzpah and ingenuity as it did on science and experience. Nothing illustrates this as well as the improbable story of how a whale from coastal British Columbia ended up halfway around the world entertaining visitors to an aquarium on the French Riviera.

In December 1969 the whales returned to Pender Harbour, and Sonny Reid and his friends were ready for them. This time they netted a dozen specimens at Madeira Park, another harbour community. Six of the captives escaped or were released, and five were sold to aquariums in California. That left one for two teenage collectors from Vancouver who were acting for a French aristocrat, Roland de la Poype, a decorated fighter pilot who was building his own marineland at Antibes on the Côte d'Azur. Despite their youth, Robin Best and Chris Angus had been collecting animals for several years. Before they could legally vote they already were advertising themselves as "dealers in dolphins, whales and other marine mammals." "We were very young," recalled Chris Angus, "but we were experts because there weren't very many."

Robin was the son of Alan Best, an animal collector himself and the supervisor of the Stanley Park Zoo. His friend Chris had spent his boyhood working around horses. When Moby Doll arrived in Vancouver, the two of them caught whale fever, spending all their spare time hanging out at the Jericho pen. Before long they were collecting river otters and seals for sale to marine parks and zoos, but their ambition was to catch a killer whale. When they heard about the whales in Pender Harbour, they rushed up the coast to see if they could acquire one of the captives for de la Poype. Negotiations took place in a local beer parlour. By this time, Chris and Robin were 18 and 19 respectively, not old enough even to be in the establishment, but they talked their way in and for $16,000 they purchased the remaining whale, a female about 5.5 metres long, which they named Su-san.

Then the hard part began. Angus went back to Vancouver to find an airplane. Most airlines took one look at the long-haired eighteen-year-old looking to charter an aircraft to move a whale and laughed him out of the office, thinking he was probably high on drugs. His search eventually took him to the Georgia Street offices of Lufthansa, the German airline. Lufthansa didn't even fly out of Vancouver at this time but the district manager fell in love with the project and agreed to make a Boeing 707 cargo jet available in Los Angeles. He also made arrangements for another plane to airlift the whale from Vancouver to California.

Bad brakes on the road to Langdale

Next Angus managed to find some fabricators who could throw together an aluminum cradle on a moment's notice. The plan was to transport the whale down from Pender Harbour on the back of a flatbed truck, suspended in a sling inside a vinyl bag in the cradle. Ice water would be sprayed over the animal during the trip to keep its skin wet. Three days after Christmas the two teenagers managed to get Su-san loaded onto the truck, which set off on the 50-kilometre drive down the Sunshine Coast to the ferry terminal. As the truck approached the steep hill that carries the highway into the town of Gibsons, the compressor gave out and with it the vehicle's air brakes. The driver had no choice but to start down the incline with only a hand brake to slow them down. By the time the truck rolled through Gibsons, its clutch was burning up, its brakes were smoking and the three passengers on board were leaning out the doors ready to jump for their lives. Miraculously, they made it onto the ferry, where repairs to the compressor were carried out.

When they drove off the ferry at Horseshoe Bay, a police motorcycle escort ushered them through Vancouver to the airport, where the next surprise awaited them. When a forklift went to load the whale, it was discovered that the cradle did not fit through the doors of the cargo bay. Ever resourceful, the two teens lopped off a section of the cradle and by bending the whale's tail managed to stuff the animal into the back of the plane.

At this point David Taylor took over. Taylor was the veterinarian at the Flamingo Land Zoo, owners of the whale pool in Yorkshire, where Su-san was going to be kept until de la Poype got his facility in Antibes built. He had arrived from England with his animal trainer, Martin Paddly, and the two of them took possession of the whale at the airport. The flight to Los Angeles went off without a hitch and by the next day the whale was on her way to Europe. At that point she was the largest animal ever shipped by air. But Murphy's Law seemed to be plaguing the expedition.

At Manchester, where the big jet was scheduled to land, weather conditions made it impossible to put down. The airline had no landing privileges at London's Heathrow Airport, and the plane was supposed to proceed to Germany, but Taylor was adamant: the whale had to arrive in England. So the pilot radioed Heathrow and announced that he had an emergency on board and had to land. When officials learned that the emergency was a two-tonne whale they were furious, but the plane was already down.

Taylor transferred Su-san to the back of a truck and drove to Yorkshire, pausing at every rest stop to buy boxes of popsicles, which he used to cool down the water inside the vinyl container. At Flamingo Park, where she stayed for several months, the whale was renamed Calypso. Later in 1970 she was transported to Marineland Antibes, but she died that December from an abscess on the lung, a year after being hoisted out of Pender Harbour. (As a postscript to this adventure, Angus recalled that when he and Best eventually met de la Poype, the Frenchman gasped, "You are but a lad!" astonished that he had given so much money to a pair of teenagers.)

Ellis and the albino

Another teenager whose life was transformed by his encounter with killer whales in Pender Harbour was Graeme Ellis. Most of what Ellis knew about the whales he had learned growing up in Campbell River, where the fishing community hated them and Ellis himself passed the time as a boy shooting stones at them with his slingshot. He had just completed high school when Murray Newman hired him to work at the Vancouver Aquarium's out station in Pender Harbour. "I remember the first day," Ellis recalled. "[Trainer Terry McCloud] gave me a bucket and told me to walk along a log to the other end of this pool. I was terrified. First of all, walking along a log anywhere and secondly with a killer whale following me along, so it was an eye opener."

Ellis quickly overcame his fear and grew attached to the animals. When his work with the Aquarium finished early in 1969, he took a job at Sealand of the Pacific, British Columbia's second aquarium. Sealand, located in Oak Bay, was owned by Bob Wright, a Victoria-area marina owner who recognized the commercial potential of captive killer whales. He had purchased his first whale, Haida, from Ted Griffin's Seattle Aquarium, and hired Ellis to train the animal for Sealand's opening that summer. "I was very excited to be working with killer whales again," Ellis said, "because you can't help but get incredibly attached to these animals. They're so bright and it's so rewarding to interact with them."

The exhibits at Sealand also included a bottlenose dolphin named Chloe, a trio of Steller sea lions and a group of seabirds, but Haida was the star of the show and Wright was determined to find him a companion. When he was outbid for one of the Pender Harbour captives that December, Wright decided to go into the capture business himself, little realizing what an unusual animal he would come up with.

Most killer whales are the colour of formal dinner party attire: black back and fins with white front and lapels, and a grey patch at the base of the dorsal fin. On occasion, though, all-white albino whales occur. The first reported sighting of one of these rare animals on the B.C. coast dates back to 1924. Clifford Carl, director of the Royal BC Museum from 1942 to 1969, collected many references to a local albino, which he christened Alice.

One afternoon in January 1970, Bob Wright, Graeme Ellis and a couple of other researchers were out in a boat looking for whales off the southern end of Vancouver Island. They'd had a report of a group of five animals -- transients as it turned out -- in the vicinity of Race Rocks. When they spotted the whales, they discovered that one was white, probably the granddaughter of Alice. The whales swam into Pedder Bay, a narrow notch in the coast west of Victoria, where Wright and his team managed to pen them in with the only net available, a flimsy gillnet filled with holes and too short to reach the sea floor. Concerned that the captives would escape, Wright stationed boats at intervals along the net, and all night members of his team pounded paddles on the sides of the boats and dropped seal bombs -- underwater explosives used by fishermen to frighten away seals -- to keep the whales from approaching the mesh.

A whale to the rescue

When dawn arrived, so did a pair of seiners with more nets to secure the entrance to the bay. For twenty-four days, while Wright held the captives at Pedder Bay, they would not eat the herring and salmon offered to them. At the time the distinction between transients and resident whales was not understood, nor was the fact that transients eat other marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoises, not fish.

But when the white whale, now named Chimo, and another young female, Nootka, were moved to the Sealand facility at Oak Bay, Haida, the resident whale, was able to persuade the newcomers to begin eating. Ellis described what happened. "It was the most amazing thing. We had a safety net across between them and we had someone distracting [Haida] and feeding him, at the other end of the pool. We put in both of these animals and Haida kept coming, going by the net and looking at them through the web. I was in the water watching the net in case an animal got tangled. Haida came along with herring and they both came face to face in the net. He actually pushed herring through the mesh and into their mouths and that's how they started feeding. That happened within minutes of them going in the pool. In retrospect, that totally blows me away. It was really astounding."

Meanwhile, back in Pedder Bay, the other three captives continued their fast, getting slimmer and slimmer. After seventy-five days one of them attempted to burst free through the net, and drowned. A few days later the remaining two finally started eating fish and began regaining their health. Wright had sold them to a Texas aquarium but before they could be moved, someone opened the net during the night and let them go. Over the next few years they were seen often on the coast.

Chimo, who was estimated to be five years old and 3.5 metres in length, attracted all the attention that Bob Wright had expected. She was the only white killer whale in captivity in the world, and following her arrival at Sealand, attendance doubled. Jacques Cousteau paid a visit to see her and Wright reportedly turned down an offer of a million dollars for her.

Unhappily, she began exhibiting a series of health problems. A yellow substance appeared on her skin, lesions formed, she lost weight and her echolocation system appeared to be impaired. Chimo was eventually diagnosed with Chediak Higashi syndrome, an inherited disorder of the immune system, also known in humans, that left her highly susceptible to infections. In late October 1972, Chimo became ill and after five days she died of a streptococcal infection that developed into pneumonia. Nootka was later moved to several different aquariums until she ended up in San Diego, where she lived until 1990.

By 1973, well over a dozen aquariums had purchased killer whales taken from the coast of British Columbia and northern Washington State, and a total of 263 animals had been captured, at least temporarily. The "gold rush" atmosphere had begun to arouse concern among researchers and members of the public. It was one thing to keep a small number of animals for purposes of scientific research. It was quite another to have so many on public display, performing tricks in aquariums and oceanariums.

As a first step toward protecting the killer whale population, the governments of Canada (1970) and Washington State (1971) passed legislation banning the harassment of the animals and requiring a permit to capture one. But it was impossible to establish how many whales could be captured safely without knowing the size of the population. It was widely assumed that there were thousands of the animals, but nobody knew for sure.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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