The Real Whale Who Changed the World

Killer Whale Capture off Vancouver Island, 1973. Source: author's personal collection.

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final post in our series from contributors to Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2017). In each entry, the contributors use their own chapters as the basis for wider discussions about contemporary developments that highlight the complex interactions between humans and animals. On February 20, Darcy Ingram spoke to strategies in the animal rights movement.  On February 22, Christabelle Sethna commented upon the animalization and racialization of humans and nonhuman animals, and on February 24 Joanna Dean spoke to the use of guinea pigs in medical experiments. On February 26, Carla Hustak spoke to the visceral entanglements of women’s and animal bodies. Today, Jason Colby speaks to the politics of killer whale captivity.

On Monday, January 23, 2017, dozens of activists gathered at a hearing held by the Vancouver Park Board. Their immediate grievance was the death of two belugas, mother and daughter, at the Vancouver Aquarium months earlier. But the gathering was part of a decades-long struggle against the display of cetaceans at the aquarium, and activists called on the commissioners to approve a plebiscite to end whale and dolphin captivity in the city.[1]

To the initiative’s supporters, it seemed a natural extension of Vancouver’s environmentalist history. After all, how could the city that gave birth to Greenpeace and its anti-whaling campaigns condone the ongoing practice of cetacean captivity? Yet in reality, Greenpeace may never have seized upon the issue of whaling at all without trained orcas in the city.

My chapter in Animal Metropolis examines the influence of killer whale captivity on the environmental and animal rights politics of Vancouver. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the city played a pivotal role in the shifting human relations with orcas and cetaceans more broadly. And at the heart of the story was one whale in particular. No, it wasn’t Moby Doll—the young orca briefly held by the aquarium and the subject of a recent book. With apologies to author Mark Leiren-Young,[2] the real whale who changed the world was named Skana.

The Capture That Netted Skana in Puget Sound, February 1967. Courtesy of Ted Griffin.
The Capture That Netted Skana in Puget Sound, February 1967. Courtesy of Ted Griffin.

She hailed from K Pod—one of the three salmon-eating “resident” killer whale pods that spend most of their time in the shared U.S.-Canadian waters of the Salish Sea. Captured in Puget Sound in February 1967 and sold to the Vancouver Aquarium a month later, she proved a major tourist attraction. And like other captive orcas, she helped transform public and scientific views of her species from dangerous pests to charismatic icons.

Yet Skana made her most consequential impact on Paul Spong, a New Zealand-born scientist hired by the aquarium to conduct research on her. Over the following year, the young orca proved she had her own agenda. She protested the monotony of Spong’s research trials, eventually giving consistently wrong answers. And when Spong paused to consider her motivations, she frightened him by repeatedly raking her teeth over his bare feet—perhaps running her own experiment on him. In time, Skana’s willfulness and intelligence shattered Spong’s assumptions of human superiority and animal consciousness.

Trainer Terry McLeod with Skana, 1968. Photograph by Collin Hanney. Courtesy of Terry McLeod.
Trainer Terry McLeod with Skana, 1968. Photograph by Collin Hanney. Courtesy of Terry McLeod.

After leaving the aquarium, Spong began studying wild orcas. But he also pressed Greenpeace, then focused on nuclear testing, to launch a campaign against commercial whaling. And in February 1974, he brought organization leader Bob Hunter to visit Skana. The orca greeted Spong, whom she seemed to recognize. Then, prompted by trainers, she playfully took Hunter’s head in her mouth.

The scene now lives in Greenpeace legend as a transformative encounter between Hunter and wild nature. It serves to open Frank Zelko’s recent Make It A Green Peace! (2013) and figures prominently in the documentary How To Change the World (2015). But few acknowledge that it was captivity itself that made the moment possible. After all, neither Spong nor Hunter would have had close access to an orca without the aquarium. And Skana’s behavior, which affected Hunter so profoundly, was a trick performed by trained killer whales everywhere—and circus lions before them. Yet from such encounters with the captive orca, the two men drew inspiration for the Greenpeace campaigns that brought a virtual end to commercial whaling by the early 1980s.

To be sure, critics of the animal display industry are reluctant to acknowledge this connection. And most hope the Senate of Canada will approve a proposed bill to ban cetacean captivity throughout the country. Yet the story of Skana and Greenpeace should remind us that the campaign to free the whales and the campaign to save them have never been the same thing. In Vancouver itself, the Kinder Morgan pipeline poses a far greater threat to the region’s orcas than the aquarium ever has.

We might also ask what we will lose should the push to end cetacean captivity succeed. Few seem to realize that the Canadian and U.S. governments have long relied on aquariums for the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured marine mammals. Fewer still acknowledge that North American fondness for cetaceans is, to a great extent, the product of captivity. Could the display of marine mammals play a similar role elsewhere? Is there another Paul Spong waiting to be inspired where we really need him or her: in Russia, China, Japan? In closing, I cannot do better than Frank Zelko, who observes that “anyone concerned about the fate of the world’s whales can’t help but wish that a few Japanese whalers and American admirals could have a close encounter with someone like Skana.”[3]

[1] Pete McMartin, “Cetaceans in captivity — Harpooned Again,” Vancouver Sun, 24 January 2017.

[2] Mark Leiren-Young, The Whale Who Changed the World (Vancouver: Greystone, 2016).

[3] Frank Zelko, “The Whale That Inspired Greenpeace.”


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