British Columbia·Killers

From reviled to revered: How capturing killer whales changed public perception and might help save them

British Columbia's southern resident killer whales were once considered vermin and are now beloved and protected. Some experts say this adoration grew from seeing them in captivity and while the practice depleted the wild whale population, it could also help revive it.

SeaWorld vet says knowledge gleaned from captive orcas an 'untapped resource' for wild whales

Children get a close-up view of an orca during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Angus Matthews got an adrenaline rush every time he captured a killer whale.

It was the 1970s and Matthews loved working as a "coastal cowboy" at the Oak Bay Marina in Victoria, B.C., catching orcas along the coast to sell to aquariums across North America.

What Matthews did then is illegal in Canada today. The resident killer whales of B.C.'s South Coast are endangered, protected and beloved.

But this was not always the case. In the last five decades, public perception of orcas evolved from fear to fascination, due in part because humans locked them up, learned about them and then fell in love.

Now some experts say what they learned from captive whales could be what saves the wild ones.

Perceptions were shifting around the time Matthews was penning orcas in the Pacific to be put on display at places like the Vancouver Aquarium and San Diego's SeaWorld.

"I wouldn't say I was at the stage where I was concerned we were doing the wrong thing," said Matthews. "We felt we were very much on the forefront of the changing relationship when you could share the wonder of the orcas with young kids and adults through the shows."

And Matthews was right. This was a changing relationship.

Lolita, shown here, was a southern resident killer whale who was caught near Puget Sound, Washington in 1970. She has lived at a marine park in Miami ever since. (Wallie Funk/Associated Press)

'Vermin species'

University of Victoria historian Jason Colby said, up until the mid-1960s, killer whales were seen "not just as vermin species but potentially dangerous."

In 1961, Fisheries and Oceans Canada mounted a .50 calibre machine gun north of Campbell River just to shoot orcas that were competing with humans for fish. It was never fired, but Colby said that didn't stop local fishermen from "shooting them out of anger and for fun."

In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium wanted to kill a whale, too.

The plan was to model a sculpture using an orca corpse, but plans were dashed when the whale harpooned by the team didn't die. So they leashed it up and towed it back to town. 

Moby Doll, as the whale was named, became a huge attraction, reportedly drawing more than 20,000 people to an enclosure built for the orca in North Vancouver. 

Watch footage of Moby Doll from the mid-1960s:

"It started the whole interest in catching and maintaining killer whales in aquariums for people to see," said John Ford, whale researcher for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium, who saw Moby Doll when he was 9 years old.

"It started a bit of a gold rush over the later part of the '60s and into the early '70s," said Ford.

SeaWorld to the rescue?

America's SeaWorld marine parks benefited from the orca gold rush. The marine parks' three locations still have a combined 20 killer whales in captivity. 

A lot of what scientists know about wild whales comes from aquariums.

"It's fair to say there is nobody in the world who knows more about killer whale medicine and even killer whale physiology, reproductive physiology, than the teams who take care of them here," said Hendrik Nollens, SeaWorld's lead veterinarian.

Hendrik Nollens, SeaWorld's lead veterinarian, came to Washington state to try to save J50, pictured here, a southern resident orca who was emaciated and eventually died. (NOAA/Twitter)

Nollens shares his data and staff with conservation biologists researching B.C.'s resident orcas.

Nollens came to the Pacific Northwest to lend his expertise in an effort to save J50, an emaciated wild whale who died in 2018.

"I think we have a duty and I think we're trying to honour that duty when it comes to killer whales," said Nollens. "We owe killer whales a lot ... if there is a species that few people know as much about as you do, you go help."

Colby says society's love for wild whales, and the will to save them, wouldn't be what it is now if not for captivity.

"It was the single most important factor in the the transformation of both public and scientific views and interactions with this apex predator. I say that not to celebrate or to apologize for captivity but rather to explain and analyze the role it played," said Colby.

According to Colby, more than 50 orcas were taken from West Coast waters. It remains to be seen if studying their descendents will save those family members struggling to survive in the wild.

Jason Colby, left, and Angus Matthews, right, on the dock in Pedder Bay near Victoria, B.C., near where Matthews began his career capturing whales for marine parks. (Sterling Eyford/CBC)

Killers: J pod on the brink is a CBC British Columbia original podcast about the southern resident killer whales, hosted by Gloria Macarenko. You can get it now for free at CBC Podcasts.

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