The Killer Whale who Changed the World

Mark Leiren-Young / Greystone Books / 208 pages

The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, by Mark Leiren-Young, tells a fascinating story. Everything has to start somewhere, and captive display of this or that species is no exception. In most cases, the first time a wildlife species was displayed to amaze the public—especially a species that is extremely popular as an exhibit animal today—is (as the cliché goes) lost in the mists of time. But we can easily identify the first orca to be displayed to the public, as it happened only 52 years ago, amid great fanfare.

Moby Doll was a young orca, perhaps only 5 years old, who was never meant to be displayed—he was meant to be dead. He was supposed to serve as an anatomically correct model for a sculpture at the Vancouver Aquarium. So the sculptor, Sam Burich, harpooned him—and almost immediately regretted it, doing all he could to keep the young whale alive. The first orca to be displayed to the public, therefore, was a fluke (pun intended).

Leiren-Young’s slim volume vividly describes the controlled chaos surrounding how the whale followed the capture boat dozens of miles to Vancouver, was put first in one enclosure, then another, all on the fly, before finally dying three months after his capture. I found this description very edifying, learning lots of details about this story, which I thought I knew so well.

But if you’re looking for an objective version of the event, this isn’t your source. Leiren-Young relied heavily on interviews with the surviving people who were involved in Moby Doll’s capture and display, including Murray Newman, director of the Vancouver Aquarium at the time. (Newman passed away at age 92, shortly before the book was published.) It is therefore heavily slanted in favor of the “orca cowboys”—the men who cashed in on the Moby Doll craze by rounding up dozens of Puget Sound whales in the following years. In a noble effort to tell the story within its historical context (after all, back then we knew almost nothing about orcas, so harpooning one was mainstream), Leiren-Young sacrifices too much objectivity. For example, he describes one of the animal activists of the day—a natural enemy of Newman’s, given how Moby was acquired—in a fairly dismissive tone, almost certainly echoing Newman himself.

The tale of Moby Doll (the name arose because he was originally believed to be female) was a tale very much worth telling and this book will give you the fascinating details for sure. But historical context or no, compassion is timeless. There were people in Vancouver who knew immediately, despite ignorance of orca intelligence or natural history, that Moby Doll was being treated disgracefully. It would have been nice if Leiren-Young had offered their perspective in greater depth, to balance that of the cowboys.

—Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine biologist

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