For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Moby Doll: The Whale That Changed the World

The year is 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson is president of the United States and Lester B. Pearson is Prime Minister of Canada. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" by The Beatles is topping the music charts and gas cost about 30 cents a gallon. The Vancouver Aquarium, in the heart of the city with a population of about 800,000, has been open for eight years under the directorship of Dr. Murray Newman. Newman has a vision of creating the finest aquarium in the world and is planning a new exhibit featuring the marine life of the waters of British Columbia. The star of the exhibit is going to be a life-sized model of a killer whale, one of those horrible, vicious animals that frequented local waters. He knew killer whales were too dangerous to be kept alive, but since no one really knew in detail what one looked like he wanted to show them.

The Smithsonian Institution had recently sent a representative to one of the BC whaling stations to study a blue whale carcass to make a model for their Washington, DC Museum. Anyone who studied whales studied dead ones, so Newman made plans to acquire a killer whale carcass. He would have to get his own - killer whales are too small to be of interest to any of the commercial whalers. A machine gun had been mounted overlooking the Seymour Narrows near Campbell River three years earlier. It was stocked with 2000 rounds, the plans being to shoot as many killer whales as possible. They were surely interfering with human fisheries, and were on the list to be culled along with Steller sea lions and basking sharks for just that reason. Due to fire danger and the risk of ricocheting bullets hitting an innocent bystander the gun had never been fired, however, so there were no dead orcas to be obtained that way.

Instead, Newman acquired an old exploding harpoon gun from the Coal Harbor whaling station and hired a man from the First Nations to teach his ragtag crew how to fire it, using an apple tree for target practice. He discussed his plans with the University of British Columbia, who approved the idea, but no other license was needed to proceed. After all, who cared if you wanted to shoot a blackfish? He heard from someone that whales often passed close to East Point on Saturna Island, less than 40 miles from the Aquarium, so he set up his expedition crew there in late May. Sculptor Sam Burich, hired to build the model, was there, and passed his time painting orcas on their gear and carving modern-day hieroglyphics into the soft sandstone rocks. Also present was commercial fisherman Josef Bauer who had worked with the aquarium on other projects. The crew set up camp, and waited for whales.

Orcas passing East Point on Saturna Island in September 2012

It took six weeks until the day finally arrived. Other members of the crew had gotten bored and left, including a few commercial fisherman and a film maker who planned to record the whole event, but Burich and Bauer were still there. Burich was the one who manned the harpoon, and as a group of whales rounded the point not far from shore, he selected his target. As he would later famously say to the media, "I picked one out that seemed a little smaller than the others. It looked me right in the eye and I looked right back. I just let her have it."

The harpoon found its mark, piercing the whale so solidly that the point came out the other side of the animal. The animal reacted instantly, thrashing violently in an attempt to free itself. The men watched, waiting for the animal to die, as it entangled itself in the rope attached to the harpoon. The other whales watched, too, remaining near to the injured animal. When the whale began to tire out, two other animals approached it and held it to up to the surface, making it easier for it to breathe. Realizing the animal wasn't going to die, the men thought Newman might be interested in examining the killer whale alive. They tried to call him, but he wasn't available, so they called Dr. Patrick McGeer, a professor at UBC who was involved in the project due to his interest acquiring and studying a killer whale brain. While they waited for McGeer to arrive, local islanders showed up, guns in hand, ready to help finish off the whale before it hurt somebody. Bauer, who from his many years on the water didn't hold the same opinion of the dangerous blackfish that most people did, planted himself between the whale and the men on shore. No one was going to kill this whale until the Vancouver scientists arrived - in the meantime, it didn't pose a risk to anyone, he was sure.

McGeer hired a seaplane and flew to East Point, where the lighthouse keeper related to him the story of what he deemed was a dangerous struggle between the thrashing whale and the men on shore. When McGeer arrived on scene, things had calmed down considerably. All the other whales were gone, and the young injured animal rested on the surface. By this time, Newman had been reached and was also on his way. It was agreed no one would shoot the whale until hearing what Newman wanted to do.

When Newman arrived, an idea formulated in his head. He had always believed that live animals were much more valuable than dead ones, and the chance to study a live killer whale was too great a one to pass up. He called David Wallace who ran a shipyard in North Vancouver, asking if they could flood his dry dock to house the whale. Familiar with Newman's reputation in the area, Wallace agreed, and plans were laid to move the whale from East Point to Vancouver. The men were amazed that the whale followed along beside them "like a dog on a leash", and the relocation of the whale went off without a hitch.

Concerned the harpoon wound might become infected, McGeer rigged up a syringe to inject penicillin on the end of a long pipe. Newman called a dean at UBC to seek further medical advice. "Have you removed to the harpoon?" the dean asked. Oh, yeah, they realized. That might help.

A few days later, after the harpoon had been removed, the whale seemed to be recovering nicely. Wallace was interested in putting his dry dock back into use, however, so Newman arranged to have a sea pen built attached to a tugboat. "You're not going to bring that horrid animal into the harbor, are you?" she asked him. That was exactly what he had in mind. It took a week to construct the pen, and they waited until the whale swam into it on its own, closing the gate behind it. It was time to transport the whale again, and again it went smoothly.

Meanwhile, the public eye was on this newly acquired killer whale. 20,000 people came down to see the whale and newspapers around the world picked up the story. Scientists from all over the continent came to see the whale first hand. A pair of men came up from a marine lab in California and offered to buy the whale from Newman. He wasn't interested in selling, so he named what he thought was an outrageously high price: $25,000. He was surprised when the men readily agreed to pay it, but he declined. This whale was not for sale. A radio contest was undertaken to name the whale, and a member of the media asked McGeer if it was a male or a female. He didn't know, so he asked whale expert Gordy Pike what he thought. Due to the short dorsal fin on the 15-foot animal, Pike said it was a female, so that's the answer McGeer related to the media. The winning name was chosen: Moby Doll.

The next problem was trying to figure out what the whale would eat. Newman had heard killer whales took down gray whales to eat their tongues, so he arranged to get a gray whale tongue from a whaling station up north. When they dropped it in the whale's enclosure, Newman would later relate, "Moby was horrified". With no luck that way, they tried all kinds of other meat, including seal, whale blubber, and octopus. Still, Moby wouldn't eat. Nothing worked for nearly two months until someone offered the whale a lingcod. This, finally, was consumed. Moby consented to eat other fish, offered to her on the end of a long pole. Salmon, Newman realized, was her favorite, but it was awfully expensive, so a variety of fish were provided.

During these weeks of up-close observation of a wild killer whale, the old ideas of killer whales being fearsome creatures that devour anything including man given the opportunity were quickly shattered. This animal was docile, or even curious. Burich, the one who harpooned her, was taken with sitting beside her enclosure and playing his mouth organ, which the whale seemed to enjoy. His wife would later relate that moments like these changed his life. Moby was smart, too - she made a wide variety of squeaky vocalizations, and McGeer's impression was that other whales heard and even responded to her. Most surprising of all was that Moby was gentle. After feeding the whale off a pole, they realized that if you fed her by hand, she might not even take off your hand. McGeer bravely tried it, and the whale easily took the other end of the salmon dangling at the end of his outstretched arm.

There were more surprised in store for the scientists, too. One day someone called McGeer down to the enclosure. When McGeer asked what was wanted of him, the man replied, "I want to show you Moby Doll's dick". Turns out she was really a he, finally apparent at one point when the whale had its penis erect. Surprisingly, they had a young male on their hands, instead of a young female. McGeer would later justify Moby Doll as an appropriate name, "Even though Moby was a male, Moby was a doll."

While they thought Moby's health would improve after he began eating, the opposite turned out to be the case. The animal became sick and listless, finally dying on October 9th. An autopsy determined Moby Doll died of an Aspergillus infection, but McGeer believes that was just the result of the whale being held in the unhelathy waters of the Vancouver harbor. The low salinity of the water due to the nearby outflow of the Fraser River probably contributed to the comprising of Moby's immune system.

The whole ordeal lasted less than three months, but the impact of Moby Doll would be a lasting one. The widespread publicity of Moby Doll, the first-ever positive press for the killer whale, would have a variety of impacts on the lives of the wild whales. With the realization that blackfish weren't actually so dangerous and could be held in captivity, more than 30 aquariums would set out to add killer whales to their collections, and a lucrative global industry was launched, with every facility obtaining a whale having immediate financial success. This meant that some populations of whales, in particular the Southern Resident Killer Whales, would be severely impact by a decade of live captures, though of course at this time no one knew the different between a resident and a transient whale, or even if the number of killer whales in British Columbia numbered in the hundreds or in the thousands. 

In addition to the aquarium industry jumping on the killer whale bandwagon, a different sort of spark was lit as well. These whales were inherently intriguing, far more interesting than they were dangerous, and suddenly instead of shooting them people slowly began to be keener to study them instead. Moby Doll in particular would touch the lives of a couple of young men would go on to have extremely influential careers as killer whale researchers. Mike Bigg, who pioneered methods of photo-identifying killer whales and undertook the original surveys of British Columbia killer whale populations, was a student interested in harbor seals until he took part in Moby Doll's necropsy alongside Dr. McGeer. John Ford, nine years old in 1964, was taken by his mom to see Moby Doll at the Vancouver harbor, and he was fascinated by the whale. He, too, would go on to become a killer whale biologist, specializing in acoustics and defining their different vocalizations into discrete call types while learning about the nuances of killer whale dialects between different populations. He started by listening to the recordings that had been made of Moby Doll at the Vancouver Aquarium, and used the very same equipment to make recordings of the other whales the aquarium held when he was a student. He would be surprised when, in the late 1970s, he heard vocalizations from wild killer whales coming over his hydrophones that sounded just like Moby Doll. Through his work, it was apparent that Moby Doll had been a member of what we now call J-Pod. J2 Granny and J8 Speiden, two well-known whales from J-Pod who are still alive today, were probably there when Moby Doll was harpooned, and may have even been among the whales that helped hold him up to the surface after he had been injured.

This weekend there was a symposium held on Saturna Island entitled Moby Doll: Reflections on Change. In attendance were many renowned killer whale scientists, over 200 orca enthusiasts, and Dr. Murray Newman and Dr. Patrick McGeer, present to relate their stories of that fateful day almost fifty years ago.

Banner welcoming visitors to the Moby Doll Orca Symposium on Saturna Island May 25, 2013
Dr. Murray Newman and Dr. Patrick McGeer on stage at the Moby Doll Orca Symposium May 25, 2013

It's amazing how much our attitudes towards killer whales have changed in this relatively short time period. Moby Doll triggered a new understanding that started us down the path of transforming from whale killers to whale watchers, from a paradigm of culling to one of conservation. The question that faces us now is: has even this drastic paradigm shift been enough? As Dr. Peter Ross summarized at the end of the symposium, with all the risks facing not only our whales but threatening the health of the entire ocean ecosystem, from lack of food to chemical pollutants to global climate change, perhaps its time for another shift. We need a broader, longer term, bigger picture perspective, that takes into account not only the whales we've grown to love but everything they - and we - depend on: clean water, quiet spaces, a sustainable environment, and a healthy food chain from top to bottom.


Vera said...

Wow! I am so glad that you had the opportunity to attend the symposium. Extremely interesting information!

Jill said...

Thanks for such a great write-up Monika (Traci told me about it). I couldn't make it to the symposium, but you've helped make up for that! Thank you.

Tim said...

Thanks for this. Of all the times I've been to the Aquarium, I never saw any of this history.