British Columbia

How killer whales went from beasts to beloved

Before the capture of Moby Doll, orcas were widely perceived as monsters — and thousands were slaughtered.

Oct. 9 is the anniversary of Moby Doll's death — a legendary orca caught near Saturna Island

The teeth that had terrified humans for years . . . and the lesions that covered Moby Doll’s skin courtesy of the polluted water in the harbour. (Don McLeod, courtesy of Terry McLeod)

Orcas are one of the most beloved animals on the planet, but the creatures were widely perceived as monsters long before activists began chanting "save the whales."

"Everybody knew that these whales were ferocious and dangerous, and if you got too close they would bite your head off," said Mark Leiren-Young, author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World.

In the 1950s, the U.S. military launched an air strike on nearly 100 killer whales off the coast of Iceland — slaughtering them with rockets and gunfire — after fishermen complained they were eating too many herring.

And in the early '60s, Canada's federal government approved a mounted machinegun on the coast of Campbell River, B.C., as a tool to reduce the alleged fish-ravaging orca population.

But the negative attitudes towards killer whales changed in the summer of 1964, when a whaling crew captured the infamous Moby Doll off the coast of Saturna Island, B.C. — one of the first killer whales ever held in captivity.

Moby Doll was captured off the coast of Saturna Island in July, 1964. (CBC)

Named after the infamous white whale, Moby Doll was captured on behalf of the Vancouver Aquarium in July 1964. He was meant to be used as an educational fixture showcasing the anatomy of an orca.

But the harpoonist botched the kill shot.

"It was impossible shot — one inch to either side, and it would have killed the whale," Leiren-Young said.

The media, the military, scientists, and politicians watch Moby Doll maneuver in the new pen. (Don McLeod, courtesy of Terry McLeod)

Moby Doll was instead brought back to Vancouver, where it lived inside a makeshift holding tank in Burrard Inlet. At the time, TV news broadcasts reported that the Vancouver Aquarium had captured a monster.

People were clamouring to see it.

"A couple days later, the owner of the dry dock allowed the public to view the whale, which was the first and only time that viewing for this whale was allowed," Leiren-Young said.

A crowd of 20,000 people showed up — the same number of people that filled The Beatles concert at Empire Stadium later that summer.

As soon as orcas were displayed in marine parks in 1965, every whale show featured feeding time. Terry McLeod was one of the first humans to hand-feed a killer whale, after he realized Moby Doll wasn’t interested in eating hands. (Don McLeod, courtesy of Terry McLeod)

"It went from 'The Monster' to 'Vancouver's pet whale' in such a short span of time," Leiren-Young said.

Instead, he says, people began to notice that the killer whale wasn't the monster that it had been made out to be — it was docile, friendly, and beautiful.

The orca sparked the interest of scientists, who began studying its vocals, leading to the discovery that pods of whales and dolphins speak in dialects.

It seemed like everyone with a camera was taking photos of Moby Doll—including the Vancouver Aquarium’s founding curator and the head of the whale-hunting expedition, Murray Newman. (Murray Newman)

Leiren-Young says the killer whale also helped spawn the modern Save the whales movement, which grew out of Vancouver.

"Moby changed the world in lots of ways — we went from fearing these creatures to loving them to death."

He says if it wasn't for this one whale's misguided capture, there might not be any orcas left to save.

"I'm pretty much convinced that without Moby Doll, we would have finished off the last killer whale with a side of wasabi years ago."

Moby Doll lasted 88 days in captivity, before passing on Oct. 9, 1964.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Meet Moby Doll: The Killer Whale  Who Changed the World