Moby Doll of the Salish Sea

First captured killer whale challenged the way we think

"Still underway after three decades, the investigation of orcas along the Pacific Northwest coast has become one of the great sustained efforts on the frontiers of science. As you pore over the detailed life histories of so many individual animals and the branching kinship charts that link families and clans, you can hardly escape the sense that what has been accomplished is practically an anthropological study of long mysterious underwater tribes." - Douglas H. Chadwick, The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye with Whales

Out in the chuck, looking for chinook, Moby Doll never saw it coming.

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A harpoon, shot from a gun mounted on the sandstone cliffs of Saturna Island, pierced his left side and sent him into a tailspin. Other members of his family supported Moby's head above the water while he slowly regained his senses. After two or three minutes he began swimming and breathing normally on his own with a 200-metre harpoon line tethering him to the shore.

People who spend their lives watching and studying killer whales often find it difficult not to anthropomorphize "blackfish." Their similarities with humans are too numerous and obvious to ignore, but that was not the case back in 1964 when killer whales like Moby Doll were simply seen as apex predators and terrifying monsters from the ocean's deep.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the first capture of a live killer whale for the purpose of displaying as public spectacle. During the first week of his life in captivity Moby Doll swam continually counterclockwise in a flooded dock at the foot of Lonsdale in North Vancouver.

"You have to think of the historic time," says Murray Newman, the founding director of the Vancouver Aquarium and a longtime West Vancouver resident. "We had a plan for tripling the size of the Vancouver Aquarium. I wanted to create a space that would present the story of Western Canadian aquatic animals and have all the exhibits in some kind of a sequence that would tell the story of the waters of British Columbia. At the entrance we would have a sculptured model of a killer whale so that people could actually see what one looked like."

Newman wrote extensively about Moby Doll in his autobiography, Life in a Fishbowl: Confessions of an Aquarium Director, published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1994, the year after he retired. Now in his 90th year Newman talked about the capture again in an interview with the North Shore News. A superb raconteur sifting through a lifetime of memories, he often ends his sentences chuckling about the way it all went down.

Initially the Vancouver Aquarium wanted nothing to do with a live killer whale. They weren't called killer whales for nothing. The original idea was to obtain an orca that would then be used as a model for a sculpture to be hung from the ceiling in the new British Columbia Hall. But all that changed when Moby Doll survived the harpoon shot.

Newman sought out people who would be able to help him hunt down a killer whale in the Georgia Strait. "I thought we should get all the best talent we could get and involve scientists and artists to make this a community event," he recalls.

Ian McTaggart-Cowan, the head of UBC's zoology department recommended Saturna Island as the best place to harpoon a killer whale as they came very close to shore at East Point. After learning about the project, neurology professor Pat McGeer got on board as the primary scientist. He was interested in studying the brain of a killer whale, which is roughly four times the size of a human's.

Vancouver School of Art principal Fred Amess suggested artist Sam Burich would be the right person to sculpt the animal. The Department of Fisheries brought in Musqueam fisherman Ronald Sparrow who had a harpoon gun.

Sparrow and Burich set up the gun on May 20 and waited for whales to come by. East Point drops off steeply just a few metres from shore and in some months, orcas can be seen swimming by almost daily.

While the collection team was waiting for whales, the Department of Fisheries provided a patrol boat so the team could practise firing the harpoon gun at a target. "I had been in the U.S. Navy in World War II and this is what we used to do there," says Newman. "One ship would tow a target past the other ships and they would fire at the target."

Killer whales were seen in the area on May 22, 24, 26 and 28. They always came in from the direction of the Juan de Fuca Strait and the open ocean but never ventured close enough to shore to be shot at. Between May 28 and June 25, no orcas were seen at all. Sparrow was eventually called away to fish himself leaving Burich as the principal harpoonist and Steveston fisherman Joe Bauer riding shotgun.

The team spotted Moby Doll in a group of whales on July 16 while they were moving parallel to the cliffs about 20 metres from shore. The harpoon speared the young male orca on the left side just under the skin. Stunned by the shot, Moby Doll needed assistance from other whales to stay at the surface; after a few minutes, he started swimming again on his own.

"It looked like we had a live whale," says Newman. "Pat McGeer was the first one over there and I followed with Bob McLaren from our board of governors. We finally decided to contact the owner of North Van's Burrard Dry Dock, and David Wallace was as stunned as the whale was to hear that we wanted to bring a live whale into his dry dock."

Newman knew of Burrard Dry Dock's Wallace family through his association with timber baron H.R. MacMillan, who played an important role in getting the aquarium started. "David Wallace said, 'Alright, if you can get it over here we'll accommodate it for a little while but we can't keep it very long.' We had a small motorboat, which we took across the gulf, and Moby Doll just followed like a dog on a leash."

Burich and Bauer had no difficulty in leading the 4.6-metre, one-tonne killer whale behind their 12-metre boat, but almost nothing was known about the animal and he was still greatly feared by his captors. At this point they weren't even aware he was male, estimating by his small size that they had a female orca on their hands. He'd get the name Moby Doll from a radio contest that was held during his captivity.

"The weather was very good," says Newman. "It was early July. We went all the way across and we were front-page news in newspapers all around the world. As we approached Vancouver, we were surrounded by boats as though we were an aircraft carrier coming in, with all of this flotilla behind us. And then we got to the dry dock and Moby Doll went right in."

McGeer organized a medical team to look after the injured whale and brought in University of British Columbia's dean of medicine to get his opinion on what steps they should take. "He said the first thing to do was remove the harpoon line and administer penicillin so that it doesn't get an infection," recalls Newman. "Again, we weren't quite certain about the killer whale, so Mr. Wallace got a crane and Pat and a technician from UBC made up a syringe with a handle eight-feet long or something like that so the whale wouldn't bite us."

The next day they cut and removed the line, leaving Moby Doll free to swim within the flooded dock.

Wallace had made other commitments for his dry dock, requiring them to find a new home for the killer whale. Moby Doll remained at the foot of Lonsdale until July 24 while a new enclosure was built for him at Jericho Beach. A month later, The Beatles would play their first-ever concert in Canada, across the inlet at Empire Stadium.

With help from his friend Air Vice-marshall Leigh "Stevie" Stevenson, Newman approached the military for a temporary housing solution for their catch. "Stevie and I went down there to meet the colonel in charge, Col. Matthews," he says. "The officers were all bored; they didn't have enough to do; the war was over; so we suggested that perhaps they could help us with the killer whale. Bill Matthews, the colonel, was a fantastic man and he just loved that idea. He said, 'Well we'll just fix up the dock here and we'll make an enclosure.' He got all the officers to volunteer as well as naval officers from Esquimalt to come over and in sort of a Biblical way they did the whole thing in six days."

Cates Tugs, neighbours of Burrard Dry Dock on the North Vancouver waterfront, were brought in to help with Moby's move across the inlet as well, says Newman.

"We didn't have any money and I was the head of this tiny aquarium in the park but Cates provided us with tugboats so that we could tug Moby's dry dock all the way across the harbour to Jericho. The navy provided a ship that came out with all the dignitaries on it to watch but when it reached Jericho Moby didn't want to leave the dock to go into the enclosure.

"Vince Penfold, who was my assistant and a former naval officer, went in the water with Moby and maybe was the first person to ever swim with a killer whale. Again, we didn't know what we were doing because nobody had ever tried this before. Eventually Moby went over to the exit of the dry dock and toward the entrance to the new enclosure. Moby went in and Vince came out."

Moby Doll's docile, accommodating behaviour was in complete contrast to what Newman and his team had been expecting and this made it easier to approach him. "Moby was vocalizing quite a bit," says Newman. "Vince got a tape recorder from Esquimalt and we put hydrophones in there so we could listen to the vocalizations as they occurred underwater and then scientists came from all over the place."

Harvard zoologist William Schevill and William A. Watkins, a pioneer in marine mammal bioacoustics, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts travelled north and made recordings of Moby in his enclosure at Jericho by dangling a hydrophone in front of him as he circled the pen, making clicking sounds.

Moby Doll refused to eat anything until they finally decided to try fish - on Sept. 9, almost two months after he had been captured. Up until then the team had tried all kinds of things they thought killer whales would like to eat, with no success.

Lingcod and other fish were then suspended from a line inside his pen by Burich. "Sam was the artist, then the harpoonist and finally he became the feeder," says Newman. "Allan Williams, who was head of the parks department here in West Vancouver, came over and was the first person to feed a killer whale by hand. He happened to be there when we had some fresh salmon, which was what Moby was waiting for."

Despite the best efforts of Newman and his team Moby Doll died on Oct. 9, just 87 days after he'd first been brought into captivity. Healthwise, the killer whale had developed a number of problems but one major contributing factor was thought to be the low saline content of the water near Jericho Beach.

Even though Moby Doll only survived for a few months on the Vancouver waterfront, his story marks the start of an extensive body of research into killer whales worldwide. From the beginning, the Vancouver Aquarium has been at the centre of much of this groundbreaking work and has served as a resource and inspiration for generations of scientists, including John Ford, head of the Department of Fisheries Cetacean Research Program at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.

Ford actually remembers seeing Moby Doll as a boy in the first days after the killer whale arrived at Burrard Dry Dock. "I grew up on the North Shore," he says. "I was nine when Moby Doll came in. There was quite a crowd - I remember a lot of people went down to view it. My memory's kind of vague but I do remember seeing Moby at the dry dock and then again at Jericho. It made an impression, that's for sure. When I was younger, my family had a place out in Sooke, west of Victoria, and we would sometimes see the killer whales go by while we were salmon fishing. I have vivid memories of them swimming beside the boat and seeing their black and white patterns under the water and being terrified."

Ford attended Hollyburn elementary and West Van High on the North Shore before going on to study at UBC. "During the summers of my undergrad I started working at the Vancouver Aquarium," he says. "Initially as a floorboy sweeping up after the whale show and then after that first summer, I got involved with the marine mammals in training and feeding them."

While working with the belugas in the early '70s, Ford became fascinated by the sounds they made, which could be heard in the underwater viewing gallery. He borrowed the same equipment the aquarium had used to record Moby Doll and studied the beluga sounds on sophisticated acoustic analysis equipment at the Defence Research Establishment Pacific in Victoria. That early research led to fieldwork on narwhals with a Vancouver Aquarium expedition in 1975.

Ford became particularly interested in the behaviour and communication of killer whales after learning of the work being done by Michael Bigg and Graeme Ellis at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. In their studies, using photo identification to understand killer whale populations on the B.C. coast, they discovered that orcas lived in very stable family pods that travelled regular routes while foraging for food. Not only could orcas be ID'd individually but they also seemed to hang out with the same group each year. Patterns of behaviour began to emerge.

Researchers could study the sounds of different groups of killer whales in the wild and link them to specific behaviours. "You could actually go out on different days and find the same group of whales," says Ford. "You could record them in different situations and match up sounds with the behaviours of that particular group which is something that really couldn't be done easily with any wild cetacean prior to that, so that's what ultimately got me going for my graduate work at UBC, which was all on the dialects of killer whales along the coast and their behaviour and social structure."

Through the pioneering work of Bigg's Pacific Biological Station and other researchers in B.C. and Washington state in the early '70s, the world of killer whales began to come into focus. Bigg was originally commissioned by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to survey killer whale populations on the coast. This work initiated further research about the animals unavailable when Moby Doll was captured.

Bigg, who died of leukemia in 1990, helped the young grad student get started with his fieldwork. "Mike was a real visionary, a very keen and bright scientist," says Ford. "He was a mentor to me and many of my colleagues because that was just his way. He was really so accommodating and helpful and it was really Mike that allowed me to start working on wild killer whales and doing the acoustics for my graduate work. I needed a boat and he found an old used boat and an old used outboard. This study of killer whales on the coast is Mike's legacy. We go out and photo-identify the whole population each year - we look after the northern residents and our colleague Ken Balcomb down on San Juan Island focuses more on the southern residents. We work collaboratively. This is the longest continuously running annual census of a population of any species of whale in the world."

Through close study of annual population counts it became apparent that there were two distinct kinds of orcas present along the West Coast: resident fish-eating killer whales that communicate continuously with each other and transient (or Bigg's) marine mammaleating killer whales that stalk their prey silently. Resident killer whales have strong social ties and live in matrilineal family pods, where males and females stay with their mothers throughout their entire lives, even after they have children of their own. The fathers are from other pods and do not live with the group.

Transient/Bigg's killer whales are also organized matrilineally but offspring disperse from their mothers once they reach maturity, especially females once they've had calves of their own. More nomadic in nature they roam freely along the West Coast silently looking for prey such as harbour seals, sea lions, porpoises and other whales.

Recent genome studies (based on work by scientists such as Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of Vancouver Aquarium's Cetacean Research Program) suggest the two ecotypes split off from a common ancestor at least 700,000 years ago. To the layman's eye, residents and Bigg's may look the same but they are completely different in almost everything they do.

Bigg's photoidentification inventory established visual identities for killer whales along the West Coast with Ford's acoustical analysis giving researchers even more context as to what they were observing in the waters of B.C. and Washington state. "All the populations are acoustically very different," Ford says. "There's systems of dialects within the resident populations that seem to encode the identity of the particular pod that a whale belongs to and it learns those dialects, those calls, when it grows up in the group."

During the summer of 1978, Ford began his graduate fieldwork in Johnstone Strait, in the Robson Bight area, recording all the whales he encountered from what is called the Northern Resident Killer Whale community (consisting of 16 pods in A, G and R clans) and then moved down the coast to the Southern Resident Killer Whale (3 pods: J, K and L in one J clan) group.

"I got reasonably familiar with all their sounds," he says. "Not suspecting there were going to be any significant differences between the different pods, I moved back down to Vancouver and started working in the fall with the southern residents, intercepting them off the mouth of the Fraser River and around Victoria. The instant I put down the hydrophone it was astonishing how different they sounded."

It was during numerous encounters with the southern residents over a period of years he realized that certain signals were familiar to him from archival material. "I had listened in the past to recordings of Moby Doll and recognized that he must have come from J pod because those particular sounds I only hear when J pod was present. It would be suspected that Moby Doll would have come from a southern resident group because of the way he appeared - his fin shape and all that made it clear he was a resident type. He was captured off Saturna Island, which is very much part of the normal travel route for southern residents from the Gulf Islands to the mouth of the Fraser and back. It was a matter of figuring out which group Moby Doll was from and that relied on those call types."

Killer whales make strident, metallic sounds that are highly distinctive between different groups.

"They are not a whistle, they are actually what we call a burst pulse," says Ford. "They make whistles as well but the main really intense calls that they use to keep in touch when they are spread out in the ocean foraging over many square kilometres are these particular call types. These are the ones that are learned and are distinctive of a particular matriline. The matriarch and all her living descendants swim together permanently in a group and new pods form gradually by the splitting of these matrilines if the population is growing. The calls seem to diverge after they split and that leads to these dialects at the family level. It gets a little complicated as both the males and the females stay in the matriline for life so the big males, that are in say J pod, they are actually the grown up sons of the females in the group and they mate outside the pod typically and that's to avoid breeding of close kin."

After ID'ing Moby Doll through acoustic analysis, Ford went on to analyze some other captive killer whales and linked them back to their family pods. Namu, the next killer whale taken in 1965 off the central B.C. coast and exhibited in the Seattle Marine Aquarium, was identified as a member of C pod in the NRKW population, through recordings and photo-identification of Namu's mother. There was no photographic evidence of Shamu, a killer whale that ended up at San Diego's SeaWorld, but through acoustic analysis it was determined that Shamu was a relative of Moby Doll and came from J pod.

Never a robust population, J clan lost close to a third of its number during the late '60s and early '70s to marine park hunters. Of the 133 killer whales captured for public display since 1964, and up until the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 put a stop to it, almost all were from the Pacific Northwest and many of those were from J clan (J, K and L pods) of the SRKW population. There are still 54 killer whales in captivity around the world with the two oldest coming from the North Pacific population: "Corky," an NRKW female orca born in 1969 from A5 pod, is at SeaWorld in San Diego; "Lolita," an SRKW female orca, born in 1970 into L pod, is at Miami's Seaquarium. A5 pod lost an entire generation of orcas to captivity in the '70s. L pod was also severely depleted through captures during that time. The majority of killer whales now on display in marine parks are either from the waters off Iceland (such as Tilikum, the orca featured in Blackfish) or were born in captivity.

The removal of dozens of whales from the SRKW J clan severely affected the group in the decades following the '60s. It is estimated there were about 100 killer whales in J clan at the time Moby Doll was captured, while a decade later there were only about 70 in the group. The SRKW clan is the only killer whale population listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is currently protected under the Endangered Species Act as of 2005.

Two calves were born to SRKW in 2012 (J49 and L119), bringing the total number of orcas in the group to 80 (J pod has 25 members; K pod has 19; and L pod has 36). Tasli Shaw, a student studying illustration at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and a whale-watching guide with Steveston Seabreeze Adventures, was on the water when J49 was born on Aug. 6, 2012 and created an illustration, The Birth of J49, to commemorate the occasion.

"All of the southern resident killer whales - that's J, K and L pods - had been absent from the Salish Sea for I think it was eight straight days," says Shaw. "I came to work thinking it was going to be another day where there were no southern residents, which is always kind of tough; it's the middle of the summer and they're usually there every day so it's weird that they're all gone. I came into work, turned on the hydrophones and I could hear them talking off of San Juan Island. They were all back."

Shaw went out with a group for the morning trip and saw all three pods together making their way north. Later on around two o'clock, back out on the water with a second boat, they could see the whales had split up. Most of them had stayed south by San Juan Island but a small group of mainly J pod orcas headed north.

"They were acting kind of strange and not really going anywhere," says Shaw. "They were in a really tight group right at the surface with lots of activity. I could barely make out something that was really tiny so I got out the binoculars and lo and behold they were lifting J49 out of the water. The whole extended family. J2, Granny (the 103-year-old matriarch) was there - J49 is actually Granny's great, great grandson. They were all there and I try not to anthropomorphize them too much because it's really easy to do. There was some sort of excitement and it was amazing. J49 was so young at that point, it was only about two hours old. The mother, J37, "Hy'shqa," broke off from all the other whales for awhile by herself and gave birth and then she came back to her mother and Granny and they started this celebration. J49 was born in Haro Strait, just off of Turn Point, and then when we saw them they were just a little north of that in Boundary Pass. You can see East Point from there."

Joe Bauer from Moby Doll's collection team just happened to be in the office on the day five years ago when Shaw had her job interview at Seabreeze. "My boss Kathy said, 'Hey, this is Joe; he was present at the capture of Moby Doll,' and my jaw just kind of hit the floor - that's such an important moment in orca history."

The whale-watching season begins April 1 but Shaw didn't see any her first time out on the water this year. "We work together with all the other companies and so we get pretty good coverage across the Salish Sea. It's different every day. Typically we are looking in the Gulf Islands and then the Gulf of Georgia but if one of the other boats find something further south like in the San Juan Islands, that's where we'll go."

Shaw sometimes starts an illustration immediately after coming off the water and her artwork includes meticulous information about her subject matter. "When I'm sketching them out I will go through my own photographs or go online and try and find images of the whales' eye-patches to make sure they are accurate. Every orca's face looks different, basically, and I want to represent them as accurately as I can."

Working with Steveston Seabreeze Adventures she has witnessed significant changes in the SRKW population during her time observing them. "Historically, J pod has travelled together as one group and it's only been in the last couple of years that they've started to split into two groups, which we've called Group A and Group B. Granny's part of Group A and they will spend time apart and then they will come back together, which wasn't really observed prior to a couple of years ago. That logic would suggest that Granny was there when Moby Doll was crossing East Point."

If Moby Doll had survived longer, the Vancouver Aquarium would have needed to find another home for him as Jericho was not available as a long-term solution. Once they had completed their expansion plans a few years later, the Stanley Park facility did have room for bigger fish. They acquired a couple of dolphins, and a killer whale was purchased from Seattle Marine Aquarium owner Ted Griffin. A 14-foot southern resident female orca caught by Griffin arrived in Vancouver in the spring of 1967 as part of a boat show. "At the end of that, Ted made it available to the Vancouver Aquarium," says Newman. "Our board was uncertain about this but then they decided that this would be an important thing to do to have a killer whale so that everybody could see it. And that whale became known as Skana. We had a contest for the name and that was the beginning of our activities with regards to killer whales. Moby Doll was really the beginning of consistent research into these animals along the coast."

 

Sources:


Personal interviews:

— Murrary Newman, the founding director of the Vancouver Aquarium.

— John K. B. Ford, Research Scientist and Head, Cetacean Research Program, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, B.C.

— Tasli Shaw, artist studying illustration at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and whale watching guide with Steveston Seabreeze Adventures.

(Murray Newman and John Ford were speakers at the Moby Doll Symposium held on Saturna Island May 24-26, 2013 which Tasli Shaw attended as well).


Internet:

— saturnaheritage.ca/mobydoll

— Moby Doll / Ideas with Paul Kennedy / CBC Radio with contributor Mark Leiren-Young. Leiren-Young is working on a movie about Moby Doll (twitter.com/MobyDollMovie).

— Center for Whale Research — whaleresearch.com

— vanaqua.org/learn/aquafacts/cetaceans/killer-whales

— orcalab.org

— nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/killerwhale.htm

— killerwhaletales.org/students/listen-orcas-live/

— orcanetwork.org/nathist/offshores.html



Books/Articles:

—  “The Capture and Care of a Killer Whale, Orcinus orca, in British Columbia by Murray A. Newman and Patrick L. McGeer,” originally published in Zoologica: New York Zoological Society vol. 51, no. 5, 1966.

— Life in a Fishbowl: Confessions of an Aquarium Director by Murray Newman (Douglas & McIntyre 1994).

— People, Fish and Whales — The Vancouver Aquarium Story by Murray Newman with John Nightingale (Harbour Publishing 2006).

— The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye with Whales by Douglas H. Chadwick (Sierra Club Books 2006).

— Killer Whales: The Natural History and Genealogy of Orcinus Orca in British Columbia and Washington State  by John K. B. Ford, Graeme M. Ellis, Kenneth C., III Balcomb (University of Washington Press, second edition 2000).

— Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales by John K.B. Ford and Graeme M. Ellis (UBC Press 1999).


Film:

— Blackfish (USA 2013) Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (blackfishmovie.com).

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