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Bloodthirsty murderers no more, captive killer whales helped to transform the species’s reputation

Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator

Jason M. Colby
Oxford University Press
404 pp
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Killer whales, also known as orcas, are idolized, loved, and even revered. Such sentiments, however, have not always been held toward this species, as historian Jason Colby reveals in his new book, Orca.

From the 1940s into the 1960s, killer whales were often depicted as a menace to the rest of the ocean’s inhabitants, as well as to humans. The belief that they were a competitor for fish, for example, led local fishermen and U.S. soldiers with machine guns to kill hundreds of killer whales off the coast of Iceland in a single expedition in 1954.

As recently as 1983, fishermen in British Columbia were shooting killer whales. By that time, however, researchers and whale-watching operators in the area were horrified by such incidents, as the whales under attack were well known to both communities. This change in attitudes, Colby convincingly argues, largely came about because killer whales were brought into captivity starting in the mid-1960s.

Ted Griffin, an entrepreneur who established the Seattle Marine Aquarium, would become the first person to swim and perform with a captive killer whale. Griffin purchased the killer whale Namu, named after his capture location in British Columbia, and displayed the whale on the Seattle waterfront beginning in 1965. Griffin’s account of “making friends” with Namu, published in National Geographic in 1966, helped rapidly change human attitudes toward killer whales.

Colby notes that over a 5-year period, about 20 million people viewed killer whales captured by Griffin. “To be sure, many visitors came away from such exhibits with misgivings about captivity, but most left more likely to view cetaceans as individuals and to care about the fate of whales in the wild.”

Colby does an excellent job of framing these events within the larger environmental movement of the time, as well as placing them within the context of the nationalism that was spreading on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border at the time. (Frustrated by the sale of a Canadian-caught killer whale to an American marine park in 1965, the manager of Victoria’s Pacific Undersea Gardens lamented, “It seems that every time we get something good … it gets funneled off to the U.S.”)


We aren’t inclined to protect that with which we have no experience, observed David Attenborough.

Perhaps more than any other individual, Griffin’s early efforts to capture and display killer whales led to the burgeoning of live-capture fisheries. But the methods employed to capture live killer whales, which often occurred in plain sight of local residents, could be violent and disturbing. The use of explosive “seal bombs” (loud noisemakers normally used to drive seals away from fishing grounds), the practice of chasing whales into narrow inlets, and the inevitable deaths (and subsequent cover-ups) of some of the whales involved resulted in a tremendous backlash. Within a span of 7 years, Griffin went from being “fêted by politicians, courted by Hollywood, and consulted by the Pentagon” to being “villainized by journalists, harassed by activists, and alienated from the region he had helped change.”

This backlash, along with growing concern that this poorly understood whale population was not being well managed in captivity, led to public pressure to enact legislation to restrict whale capture and killing. “‘Only the Vietnam War generated more protest letters to the White House in the early 1970s than did whaling,’” notes historian Kurkpatrick Dorsey.

In 1971, the Canadian marine biologist Michael Bigg began tracking wild killer whale populations (individual whales were identified from photographs that revealed distinctive features—e.g., notches in the dorsal fin or color patterns on the skin) and studying their social organization and life history. Before Bigg’s efforts—with the exception of Clifford Carl’s attempt to follow the movements of a single, white killer whale in the 1940s and 1950s—killer whales were assumed to be indistinguishable from one another, and the population in the Pacific Northwest was thought to number in the thousands.

It was soon revealed, however, that most of the whales captured or killed during live capture’s heyday came from what we now know as the fish-eating southern “resident” population, a community numbering just over a hundred individuals at the time of the start of the capture operations. Live captures reduced the population to about 70 individuals, and the captures of young females and juveniles would limit its recovery for many years.

Today the population is endangered, jeopardized not by removal of individuals for captivity but by degradation of their environment and reduction of their prey base. With only ourselves to blame, do we still “care enough to save them?” asks Colby in the book’s closing pages.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Cascadia Research Collective, Olympia, WA 98501, USA, and is the author of Killer Whales of the World: Natural History and Conservation (Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2002).