To understand how orcas, also known as killer whales, moved from being feared sea creatures to celebrated marine-park performers, it helps...
To understand how orcas, also known as killer whales, moved from being feared sea creatures to celebrated marine-park performers, it helps to look back at the history of orca capture, which began in the Pacific Northwest.
It all started in 1964, when the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned a sculptor to kill an orca to use as a model for a life-size statue.
At the time, most people had never heard of a killer whale, but they did have a reputation among fishermen for stealing fish. There also were stories of orcas attacking seals, porpoises and even other whales.
Shooting an orca was generally viewed among fishermen as an acceptable response in an open-water encounter.
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The Vancouver Aquarium’s plan took an abrupt turn when its director decided instead to save the whale the sculptor had just harpooned. The whale was named Moby Doll, although it proved to be a male, and taken back to Vancouver. He captivated the public and became international news, though he lived only 87 days in captivity.
And thus an interest in orca captivity was born.
Ted Griffin, owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium (not affiliated with today’s Seattle Aquarium), became obsessed with the idea of exhibiting an orca after hearing of Moby Doll. By chance, a fisherman accidentally netted a whale in 1965, and Griffin was able to buy it for $8,000. Griffin would swim for hours with his whale, named Namu, and even allowed members of the public to swim in the sea pen on the Seattle waterfront.
And an interest in orca performance was born.
Griffin wanted a companion for Namu and, as part of this quest, completed the first intentional orca capture in October 1965. After a short time sharing the pen with Namu, the new whale’s violent behavior made it clear they could not stay together. She was sold to Don Goldsberry of SeaWorld in San Diego and named Shamu, the first in a long succession of Shamus who have performed in that park.
Orcas had become big business.
Namu, the first orca to formally perform for the public, lived just 11 months, but Goldsberry and Griffin now had interest in orcas from aquariums around the world.
Whale capture moved to a new level with the use of boats, planes and explosives to drive the whales to shallow waters. Lolita was one of 80 orcas herded into Penn Cove on Whidbey Island on Aug. 8, 1970.
That day, six whales were captured, and five were killed in the process. According to the National Marine Fisheries Services, at least 47 southern resident orcas were killed or captured between 1965 and 1973.
Just as techniques for orca capture were being refined, public opinion on their captivity started to shift. Aquariums had raised awareness to the point that people were starting to question whether it was right to hold the whales captive.
The last capture in Puget Sound took place in 1976, and its witnesses set in motion events which ensured that none of those whales met the same fate as Lolita.
On an unusually warm Sunday morning in March, former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro and his wife, Karen, were sailing with friends in Budd Bay near Olympia when they passed a pod of orcas and witnessed the herding and capture of six whales by SeaWorld.
“There was a guy throwing explosives into the water,” Karen Munro recalled of the efforts to herd the whales. “They were certainly big enough to create havoc for the orcas. It was a pretty violent situation.”
Once they were trapped, Munro could hear the orcas’ distress.
“The orcas were a pod, and they were separated from each other. They were calling to each other from inside the nets. The ones outside the nets wouldn’t leave. It was quite gruesome.”
The Munros alerted the media and the government, which led to action.
Within a week, SeaWorld was in court defending its right to capture whales because it had a permit. The court ruled that the use of airplanes and explosives violated the permit, and SeaWorld lost the case and all future rights to orcas in the waters of Washington state. After it also lost a subsequent appeal, the whales were released from their holding pen.
While capturing orcas is not illegal in Washington, no permits were granted after SeaWorld’s attempt in Budd Bay.
Aquariums’ quest for orcas, however, was far from over. It simply moved to more politically friendly waters, first to Iceland and later Japan.
Prices were escalating, as well. According to a book by Erich Hoyt, in 1979, a young orca from Iceland sold for $150,000. Prices later reached $300,000.
The last known orca capture was in Japan in 1997.