If you want to know how the whole raking-in-the-bucks-by-putting-killer-whales-on-public-display thing really got rolling, you need to know the sad and enraging story of Moby Doll.
Recently, there was a gathering to reflect on the (almost) 50-year anniversary of Moby Doll’s capture, and all that followed:
Orcas, or killer whales, were traditionally feared, revered, and respected by the indigenous people of the coast. That sentiment morphed with the growth of commercial salmon fisheries into one of dislike and aggression, as the so-called “blackfish” were seen as dangerous competitors for fish. No one thought it was safe to come near them and it was not uncommon to shoot them. Little was known about their natural history, and they were still scientifically unstudied by the 1960s.
In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium, which had been in operation for eight years, planned to harvest a killer whale for dissection, study, and use as a model for a realistic statue at the entrance to their facility. A team from the aquarium headed to Saturna, the southernmost of the Gulf Islands, and set up a harpoon on the rocks of East Point, now part of the National Park Reserve.
In due course, a pod of orcas arrived, and the five-metre-long Moby Doll was harpooned. Unexpectedly, it failed to die, as two other members of the pod swam to support it at the ocean’s surface. The aquarium team realized that they could bring the relatively calm animal back alive, and towed it 65 kilometres back to Vancouver.
They called it Moby Doll, mistaking the young male for a female, and exhibited him in a pen in the harbour, where he created a sensation. The public and media flocked to visit.
This was the first ever captive orca and as described by the Saturna symposium organizers, it “triggered a goldrush” on young orcas. Dozens were subsequently captured and put on display in aquariums around the world. The intelligent animals were often taught tricks, and would perform in shows.