Review of Colby, Orca

Young male whale named "04" being sling-lifted into Stanley Park Aquarium pool, February 1970. City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 134-009, courtesy of Pugstem Publications.

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Jason M. Colby, Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). 408 pgs, ISBN 9780190673093

Reviewed by Joanna Dean.

Jason Colby dedicates Orca to his father, who captured killer whales for aquariums such as Sea World: “For my father, John Colby – forever haunted by this story.” This is a personal story as well as a scholarly one, an expiation of the sins of the fathers. Colby’s depiction of the ambivalence of the men on the front lines of orca encounters is compelling reading and an important contribution to the growing field of orca-human history.

Attitudes toward whales shifted dramatically between 1962 and 1982. Accounts of the shift have focused on the activism of Greenpeace and the abstractions of cetacean science, and they often turn on a momentous epiphany, such as Paul Spong’s recognition of Skana’s intelligence in the Vancouver Aquarium. Colby, however, describes a more painful and protracted shift, as the men who captured the whales came to know them, and as the many millions of people who watched captive whales came to care about them. In Orca, he makes the argument that it was whale captivity that saved the whales.

Skana at Vancouver Aquarium, with new pool under construction in background, 1970. City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 134-170, courtesy of Pugstem Publications.

In 19 short chapters, written in a gripping, sometimes journalistic, style, Colby recounts the capture of famous orca such as Moby Doll and Shamu by men such as Ted Griffin, Don Goldsberry, and briefly, Colby’s own father. He conducted 51 probing interviews over four years, exploring the impact of the encounters on these men (and they were all men), on trainers like Mark Perry, and on the public. He sets the stage with a chapter on the “Old Northwest,” when governments planned to eliminate killer whales as a threat to fisheries, and concludes in the 1980s when whale captures were outlawed in the Pacific Northwest and shifted to Iceland. The tight focus on a series of encounters from the perspective of the men involved and, to the extent it is possible, from the perspective of the orca, sheds new light on human-orca relations, and the history of relations with animals more generally.

The stories Colby tells are harrowing, especially in light of what we now know about these intelligent and social animals: young orcas kidnapped from their pods were trailed for long distances by their desperate families, who called out to them as they were lifted out of the water and shipped to aquariums around the world for display. It is striking how very little we knew of whales in 1965. We did not know what they ate, how they communicated, or how their pods were structured. We did not even know whether the young whales were male or female, leading to awkward moments when Moby Doll was revealed to be Moby Dick. This is Colby’s point: the knowledge gained through captivity, by scientists like Michael Bigg, has spurred conservation. It is an argument well honed by zoos. Very few of the undergraduates in my animal history courses had much time for this argument when I assigned Colby’s early publications, and it will be interesting to see if the evidence in this book-length treatment changes their opinions. My students identified with the captive whales, not always realizing that their identification makes Colby’s point: we only care to save that which we know.

Skana (right) and “04” with trainer Mark Perry at the Vancouver Aquarium, April 1970. Skana had been captured by Ted Griffin three years earlier (along with 15 of her pod) and sold to the Aquarium as “Walter” for $20,000. City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 134-112, courtesy of Pugstem Publications.

The central, and most troubling, story is that of Ted Griffin. The sight of Griffin swimming with Namu at the Seattle Marine Aquarium in 1965 was a watershed moment in the orca-human history; the public display of the gentle giant cavorting with his captor broke the consensus of scientists and fishers alike that the whales were bloodthirsty killers. Griffin was a complicated character, and Colby’s account, based on a series of interviews with him, is fascinating. Colby withholds judgement and lays his doubts about Griffin, as well as his sympathy for the man, on the table for readers to sort through, which makes for a stronger, more human, story. But the evidence provided is troubling, and at times one becomes impatient with the sympathetic retelling. Griffin, he says, came to know Namu’s “moods, contours and body language as one would a lover” (94).  When Namu blocked his exit from the pool, Griffin mused that “Namu holds me hostage for his pleasure, as I have held him hostage for mine” (94). Namu died on 9 July, 1966 of an infection derived from the polluted water in which he had been held, and in his interview with Colby many years later Griffin recalled his depression at having “indirectly” killed “my loved one” (98). The story begs for more analysis, especially as Griffin emerged from his depression to capture – and mourn – many more orcas. He retired in 1972 under mounting criticism, and a decade later crafted his memories into Namu: Quest for a Killer Whale (1982). His stories need to be parsed in light of that crafting and the broader shift in public opinion that Colby documents. Oral historians have shown how memories, especially traumatic memories, are reshaped with the passage of time and retelling, so one wonders to what extent Griffin’s retrospective memories of his encounter with Namu were shaped by the mystical, eroticised accounts of cetacean consciousness that circulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s?[1]

Orca mural painted in 1994 by Robert Wyland, on remnants of Continental Hotel in Vancouver, BC, 2014. Courtesy of John Allison.

The population of southern resident orcas was estimated at 250 in the late nineteenth century, less than 100 in 1970, after Griffin’s notorious capture at Penn Cove removed an entire generation, and 80 on the publication of Orca. In the summer of 2018, after the book was released, the world watched as J35, a member of the J Pod of southern resident killer whales, carried her dead calf for 17 days up the coast. (It had been the first birth in three years.) In September, the emaciated three-year-old calf J50 died, reducing the population to just 73. Their deaths are due to changes in their habitat, such as toxins, ship traffic, and the shrinking supply of chinook salmon, rather than capture. Colby’s point is that without capture the world might not have cared. It is yet to be seen whether that caring leads to meaningful changes in their habitat.


[1] See Chapter Six of Graham D. Burnett, Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012) for a discussion of the extraordinary impact of John C. Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1967). The citation for some of Griffin’s comments refers to an undated and unpublished manuscript, “Namu,” that one assumes was the basis for Namu: Quest for a Killer Whale (Seattle: Griffon West, 1982).

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Joanna Dean

I write about city trees, horses and people. I teach environmental history, animal history, and gender history at Carleton University.

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