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Animal of the Month: 4 figures behind orca captivation beyond Blackfish

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince (1943)

The 2013 release of the documentary Blackfish revolutionized the way the world has since focused on orcas. Yet orca captivity in the United States and Canada predates the documentary by almost five decades. So who was behind the plight of these orcas?

Using Jason M. Colby’s Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the World’s Greatest Predator,  we compiled a list of figures behind the half century of orca captivity beyond Blackfish.

1. Ted Griffin

“Ted Griffin has been called many things—dreamer, entrepreneur, carnival barker, orca killer—but he grew up as a little boy who loved animals.”

Edward (Ted) Griffin was born in 1935 in Tacoma, Washington, growing up along the banks of the Puget Sound. Twenty-seven years later, Griffin opened the Seattle Marine Aquarium, hallmarking his lifelong devotion to killer whales. In 1965, Griffin first purchased Namu, the third captured orca ever, transporting Namu for display in the Seattle Marine Aquarium. However, Griffin established a relationship with Namu, and proceeded to become the first person to swim and perform alongside a killer whale. Through Griffin’s performative exploit with Namu, the capture, performance, and commercialization of killer whales became popularized, setting the precedent for the subsequent decades of orca capture and trade. Yet Griffin refused to renounce his past. Griffin had simultaneously caused the most damage to the orca population also prevented its extinction.

Image credit: Loro Park Orca Fish by Schmid-Reportagen. CC0 via Pixabay.

2. Murray Newman

“‘I loved that whale,’ Newman told reporters. ‘Capturing it was the best thing I ever did.’”

Born in 1924 in Chicago, Murray Newman became the curator of the Vancouver Aquarium in1955. Newman, fascinated with the prospect of displaying a killer whale within the aquarium walls, devised a mission for the harpoon capture of Moby Doll, the second orca ever captured and displayed in 1964. Griffin continued his performative streak with Moby Doll, realizing that he was able to feed the orca from his hands, much to Newman’s chagrin. Yet, despite Moby Doll’s fame as a performance killer whale, he sustained serious injuries from the harpooning, and died within the year of his capture. To cope with the embarrassment of the death of Moby Doll, Newman negotiated for the obtainment of a new killer whale for display: Skana.

3. Paul Spong

“‘Dr. Spong was a true hippie,’ [McLeod] recalled, ‘and he had some strange reflections about him.’”

Paul Spong, neuroscientist and cetologist, was born in 1939 in New Zealand—a country no stranger to the whaling industry, engaging in whaling until the 1960’s. Spong moved to the states to attend UCLA, and became fascinated with the study of orcas, as well as the anti-Vietnam movement. Yet, despite his profession, Spong still remained fearful of orcas until an encounter with Skana, another one of the first captured killer whales. Spong’s analysis on the brain of Moby Doll led to the realization of the capacity and capabilities of the brain of an orca. This discovery spawned empathy within Spong, influencing his call to action to release orcas from captivity. Spong delivered this revelation at a research conference at the University of British Columbia, emanating “an astonishing act of professional courage” (Colby 126). Spong’s contract with the Vancouver Aquarium was released the following day.

4. Mike Bigg

“‘Have you heard of the Candian Mike Bigg?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I’m writing a whole chapter on him.’ ‘Good, because in my opinion he is the most important figure in the study of killer whales.’”

Mike Bigg is recognized as the founding father of killer whale science. Born in England in 1939, Bigg moved to Vancouver at the age of nine with his family, and thereafter pursued his Master’s in zoology at the University of British Columbia. While many consider Bigg’s work the antithesis to capture of killer whales, captivity enabled researchers, such as Bigg, access to live orcas for the first time. Yet Bigg’s subsequent research began to endorse the end of killer whale capture in the Pacific Northwest, drawing that the local killer whale population was approximately 300, and their capture directly affected the population dynamics of the area (Colby 238). Bigg, a marine mammologist for the Canadian Department of Fisheries, orchestrated the world’s first “killer whale census” for orcas on the Pacific coast in 1971. His system of distinguishing individual orcas, enabling his identification of orca matrilineal ties, as well as deciphering which orcas were fish-eating “residents”, and which were mammal-eating “transients”—now called Bigg’s killer whales (Colby 226). While Bigg passed away in 1990, he leaves a lasting legacy in research on the Orcinus orca.

Featured Image Credit: “Killer Whale Orca Whale Whale Show Jump Killer” by xanio. CC0 via Pixabay

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