Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Science + Tech

After the Orca Gold Rush

When we finally counted killer whales, we learned we'd almost wiped them out.

Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett 23 May

Operation Orca, by historian Daniel Francis and whale researcher Gil Hewlett, is a Harbour Publishing book.

image atom
Big changes came during Skana's 16 aquarium years.

[Editor's note: The book Operation Orca (Harbour) recounts human efforts to save errant Springer and Luna from a lost whale's death. In this last of four excerpts, Francis and Hewlett recount the work of pioneering scientists who finally showed us how orcas live.]

To determine how many killer whales were on the coast, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada in 1971 launched a study in collaboration with the relevant departments of the four Pacific American states. In B.C., the researcher chosen to head the study was Dr. Mike Bigg, a marine mammalogist attached to the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. The project he began in 1971 would last the rest of his life and completely transform thinking about the animals, particularly about how abundant they were and how they organized themselves socially.

Bigg was eight years old when his parents emigrated from England to Canada in 1947. His father Andy found work in the cement plant at Bamberton, north of Victoria, and moved his family into a tiny house on the Malahat Highway. Andy, who had worked on newspapers back in England, began supplementing his income by writing articles for tourist publications and eventually became a well-known journalist on Vancouver Island.

By that time, Mike had left home to attend university. After completing graduate work in zoology at the University of British Columbia, he joined the federal Department of Fisheries as the head of marine mammal research on the West Coast. Initially his work involved seals and sea lions, and he was also involved in the successful relocation of sea otters from Alaska back to the B.C. coast, where they had once been abundant. But the killer whale project became a passion, not a job.

The challenge facing Bigg and his associates was how to count animals that spend 95 per cent of their lives below the surface of the water and are constantly on the move. An individual that is counted today in one location can easily be the same individual that is counted tomorrow many kilometers away. At the suggestion of Murray Newman, Bigg organized a one-day census, the first animal census of its kind anywhere in the world. He enlisted the help of volunteer informants up and down the coast: lighthouse keepers, commercial fishermen, tugboat operators, ferry crews, pleasure-boat owners, mariners of all types, anyone who was likely to see a killer whale in the course of their daily lives. He distributed thousands of questionnaires for these volunteer spotters to record how many whales they saw, where and when.

The census-day shock

Monday, July 26, 1971, was census day. Spotting whales with the naked eye is not easy, especially in rough water, and records indicated that that date gave the best chance of good weather. Close to five hundred forms came back, a large enough response that the census was repeated in 1972 and 1973. The results led Bigg to a shocking conclusion. He estimated that the population of killer whales along the coast of B.C. and Washington State was only between 200 and 350 animals, far fewer than had been supposed.

One thing Bigg and his researchers learned from the initial census was that whales seemed to be particularly numerous in Johnstone Strait, the long, windblown passage that runs along the northeast side of Vancouver Island. In August 1972, Bigg and Ian McAskie, an associate from the biological station, visited Johnstone Strait on a fisheries department boat to observe and photograph killer whales in the wild. The two researchers noticed that they could recognize some individual animals by marks on their dorsal fins and backs. An animal called Nicola, for example, had a large nick in her fin, while the fin of another, known as Stubbs, had been nearly amputated, leaving only a mangled stub. Wavy had a rippling fin, Top Notch had a notched fin and so on. As they observed the animals, an idea dawned.

As McAskie recalled it: "Mike and I were up there [in 1972] just to check the numbers and we thought, just go up and count them. We didn't know what to do about that. I noticed that one had had its dorsal fin sheared off about two-thirds of the way up. A great chunk. And we called it Stubbs. I didn't think too much about it until further up the strait in a different place and a different time we saw it again. We wondered then, discussing it on the bridge, if we should look for other indications of injuries. Seemed like a good idea. This meant chasing individuals to take photographs. Stubbs was obvious, but once you started looking you could see smaller injuries."

The use of physical markings to identify individual animals was not new. Bristol Foster, then the director of the Royal B.C. Museum, had done work identifying giraffes in Africa by noting the pattern of their skin patches. Roger Payne was beginning to use photographs to identify right whales off Argentina, and Steven Katona was doing the same with humpback whales in the North Atlantic.

The technique of photo identification was in the air; Bigg and his team utilized it to make a breakthrough in the study of killer whales. As they made more field trips and gathered more photographs, they were able to show that not just some but all of the whales could be identified using this technique. And once they identified individual animals, everything changed. The whales no longer resembled a cloud of bees buzzing around a hive or a row of blackbirds on a wire, indistinguishable one from another. Instead they were individuals, each with its own physical appearance, its own family, its own life history and habits. And each individual could be followed and documented.

The study expanded over the next few years. Censuses continued to be carried out, but Bigg also took a more proactive approach. John Ford, one of Bigg's associates, described how the system evolved. "He established a network of hundreds of volunteer observers, who would telephone or call by radio whenever whales were seen in the area. When a call was received, Mike or one of his field teams would race to the location to intercept, observe and photograph the whales. Occasionally, Mike would locate a pod from a float plane, land near the whales and, with his charm and infectious enthusiasm, convince a nearby boater to take him closer to the animals for photographs. In only three years, the team collected data from more than three hundred encounters with killer whale pods. By 1976 they had identified virtually every individual on the coast and had shed the first scientific light on the natural history of these remarkable cetaceans."

A key member of the research team was Graeme Ellis. Ellis had left his job at Sealand, tired of the circus atmosphere there, gone blue water sailing for a year, then taken a year of university. He was at loose ends when a group of filmmakers asked him to be part of an expedition to Johnstone Strait in the summer of 1973 to film killer whales. Camping in the strait, Ellis and a photographer, James Hunter, used a rubber Zodiac to track the whales, and it was during that summer that Ellis met Bigg. They spent time chatting on one of the research boats and Bigg invited Ellis to drop in to the biological station during the winter. One thing led to another and Ellis began working with Bigg whenever a few dollars could be found to pay him, and often when it couldn't. He was ready with his camera on a moment's notice, whenever a call came in on the "killer whale hotline," to jump in a boat and tear off in to the strait to locate and follow the animals.

Sanctuary and 'seal bombs'

Meanwhile, in Puget Sound, the U.S. government hired marine biologist Kenneth Balcomb in 1976 to carry out a census of whales in Washington State similar to the one Bigg and his team had conducted in B.C. Balcomb's project produced a detailed snapshot of the southern whale population. When his government support ended, Balcomb went on to establish the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island to continue the research.

The official killer whale study carried on by Bigg and his team also ended in 1976 because the main question that had prompted it -- how to set a limit on live capture of the animals -- had been answered.

In early March of that year, Sea World's Don Goldsberry, who had become the most active supplier of whales to aquariums, cornered a group of six animals at the head of Puget Sound within sight of the state capital, Olympia. His timing and tactics could not have been worse. Goldsberry was using aircraft and seal bombs to herd the whales at the same time as legislators were debating the creation of a whale sanctuary. Public opinion was already turning against killer whale capture.

The sight of the whales being harassed and "bombed" sparked an instant protest at the capture site where a crowd of more than a thousand people demanded that the captives be set free. "It was the last capture to take place in Washington State," recalled Graeme Ellis, who was at the protest, "before they put the lid on any more captures due to public protest and so on. It really was a gong show. Those guys did a real 'ride 'em cowboy' roundup right in front of Olympia, the state legislature. Everyone was horrified. They had float planes and speed boats and all the usual cowboy stuff going on."

The governor of Washington sued Goldsberry for allegedly violating his collecting agreement and ultimately a judge ordered the whales released and revoked Sea World's permit. As Ellis said, it was effectively the end of live capture on the Pacific coast. From this point, killer whales could be captured there only to replace a captive that had died or escaped. Since Bigg's censuses had already shown that the population of killer whales was too small to sustain live captures at the rate at which they had been going on, there seemed to the Canadian Department of Fisheries no more need to continue the research project.

But to Bigg and his associates, the work had just begun. Year after year they continued to monitor the whales, often in their spare time and with little or no financial support. Bigg himself was told by his bosses in the department of fisheries to shift his attention to harbour seals. He began leading a sort of double life, officially studying seals and later sea lions, while clandestinely spending much of his time compiling data on killer whales. Every scientist in the world who was interested in the whales knew about Bigg's research, but his boss on the other side of the building had little more than an inkling.

Once Bigg's team was able to identify individual whales, they could draw conclusions about the animals' social organization and behaviour patterns. The more they found out, the more it became clear just what a remarkable and unique creature the killer whale is. Thanks to Bigg's team, scientists recognized that there are actually two types of whales, residents and transients, who may share the same territory but are otherwise so different as to be almost distinct species; and that the mother is the focal individual of the pod and offspring associate with her for as long as she is alive. These phenomena do not occur in any other vertebrate animal. Much of what is now known about killer whales was discovered after Bigg died of cancer, tragically young at the age of 51, in October 1990. But all that is known derives from his pioneering work, without which it would have been impossible to identify Springer, the lost whale in Puget Sound, or develop a plan to bring her home.

The Miracle ordeal

If the live capture of killer whales for display in zoos and aquariums effectively ended on the Pacific coast in 1976, the occasional rescue of a sick or injured animal still took place. One of these rescues occurred in 1977, and it foreshadowed the rescue of Springer that took place 25 years later.

Mike Bigg and Graeme Ellis first heard about the whale that would become known as Miracle on July 4. The crew of a freighter in Nanaimo Harbour reported an animal swimming close to the ship and vocalizing actively. Since it is so unusual for a killer whale to be alone, Bigg and Ellis expected it was a false alarm, but when Ellis went out in his boat he confirmed that it was a young calf, probably just over a year old.

Reports came in during the following days and weeks as the whale was tracked northward until it entered Menzies Bay, a few kilometers north of the community of Campbell River, where it was discovered by a couple of sport fishermen. By this time, the calf appeared to be dying. It was cut where it had been struck by a propeller, a brown slime coated its back, white fungal patches were growing on its fins, and it was moving very sluggishly. There was also a bullet wound from a .22 rifle. Local people fed the whale herring and tried to protect it from the boaters who began gathering to gawk at it.

Eventually Bigg was informed and he flew up from Nanaimo with Bob Wright of Sealand and Jay Hyman, who was visiting from the New York Aquarium, where he was the consulting veterinarian. When they inspected the whale the trio of experts had no doubt the animal was dying. After burning up the phone lines to Ottawa, Wright and Bigg persuaded Fisheries Minister Romeo LeBlanc to issue a capture permit so the whale could be confined and treated for its wounds and infections.

Wright brought a crew up to Menzies Bay and with the help of a log crane they loaded the calf onto a flatbed truck and drove it through the night down island to Victoria. Not knowing for sure what infections the whale harboured, Wright did not want it sharing a pen with the other animals at Sealand, so he arranged with the Oak Bay Beach Hotel to put Miracle in the hotel's saltwater swimming pool.

The shock of the whole experience almost killed the calf. Four times she stopped breathing and sank to the bottom of the pool, and four times the rescue team was able to revive her. After a couple of days she began eating and the infection began to abate. As she recovered, Miracle received blanket coverage from the media. The Vancouver Sun kept daily track of her progress. Radio stations gave hourly updates. Thousands of curious spectators came to the hotel every day to get a look into the swimming pool. Just as Springer would, Miracle seemed to captivate the public. Medical treatment continued, and it was not until the end of February 1978, almost seven months after Miracle checked into the hotel, that she was airlifted by helicopter to Sealand.

But the animal's ordeal was far from over. No sooner had she arrived at her new home than she began convulsing, then seemed to withdraw into herself, refusing food and attention. During her time in Menzies Bay, the person who had discovered her, local millworker Bill Davis, had grown close to Miracle, hand-feeding her and eventually stroking her skin. The people at Sealand decided that exposing Miracle to a trusted friend might help her adjust to her new surroundings. Davis came down to Victoria and almost immediately got Miracle to respond and begin eating. The worst was over. Miracle lived at Sealand for almost four years until mid-January1982, when she became tangled in a net that formed one side of her pool and drowned.29 It has never been determined who her family might have been or how she came to be wounded and alone in Menzies Bay. Miracle remains a mystery.

B.C.'s last captive whales

As the 1970s drew to a close, it was evident that the era of live capture had done serious damage to the killer whale population of the Pacific coast. About fifty animals had been taken, mainly from the southern resident population, which by 1976 had been reduced to sixty-eight whales. Most of these were adults because collectors had favoured removing the younger animals. If live capture had not ceased when it did, this population of whales probably would have been wiped out. After 1976, the number of animals began to increase until by 1990 there were about ninety southern residents. Was this enough to ensure the long-term survival of the population? No one knew for sure.

Ironically, it was also during the live capture era, and perhaps because of it, that the killer whale underwent an image makeover. As the aquarium-going public grew familiar with them, the whales lost much of their fearsome reputation and became instead the poster animal for the marine mammal world: handsome, intelligent, graceful, sociable, even cuddly, if a five-tonne predator with a mouth full of sharp teeth could ever be considered cuddly.

The attitude toward the animals changed so completely that for some members of the public and the scientific community, it became anathema to keep them in captivity. In 1964, when the Vancouver Aquarium set out to obtain a killer whale, no one gave a second thought to harpooning one. Sixteen years later, in 1980, when Skana died at the Aquarium and Murray Newman wanted to obtain two new whales, he had to travel all the way to Iceland because it was no longer acceptable to capture them locally.

And even then the relocation of the animals was fought in the courts by environmentalists. Despite the public popularity of the new residents, Finna and Bjossa, captivity continued to be a hot-button issue. Finally, in 1996 the Vancouver Aquarium adopted a policy that precluded the collection of killer whales from the wild. Finna, who died in 1997, and Bjossa, who was moved to Sea World in San Diego in 2001, were the last killer whales to live at the facility.

But that was far from the end of the Aquarium's involvement with killer whales. Scientists based there continued to carry out groundbreaking field studies on the animals. It was not surprising, therefore, that when Springer showed up in Puget Sound alone and ailing, it was the Vancouver Aquarium that developed the plan to save her.

Related Tyee stories:


  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Should Fossil Fuel Ads Be Restricted?

Take this week's poll