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the Legacy continues…………………….
Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

Earth Day 2009

Earth Day 2009 seemed like a good occasion to consider one of British Columbia’s environmental success stories at least so far, the survival of coastal Killer Whales. It is surprising to recall that as recently as the 1960’s, “Orcinus orca”  the Killer Whale was among the most reviled animals on the planet, thought to be a vicious predator this “Wolf of the Sea”. These whales were targeted for sport and killed for animal food. Fishermen shot at them with rifles and the government installed a machine gun overlooking a busy coastal passage to drive them away from local salmon grounds. The first director of the Vancouver Aquarium Dr. Murray Newman, remarked that they were considered “the marine world’s public enemy number one”. Yet today, the Killer Whale is the poster animal for the coastal marine environment. What happened?

The change began in 1964, when the Vancouver Aquarium accidentally captured a Killer Whale near one of the Gulf Islands between southern Vancouver Island and the mainland. The captive animal was transported to North Vancouver and installed in a dry-dock, then moved across English Bay to a specially constructed pen at Jericho Beach. In both locations, members of the public lined up to view the whale, which was dubbed “Moby Doll” and scientists from around the world flew in to study its habits. Among other things, the keepers learned that the whale was a fish eater, not a carnivore and that it was a gentle giant that showed no animosity at all towards its handlers. “Moby Doll” died of a lung infection less than three months later but he lived long enough to make people wonder if they had been wrong about “public enemy number one.” Instead of a fearsome man-eating predator, they had seen an amiable creature that was endearing and apparently intelligent. At the same time however, Marineland of the Pacific in California had offered $25,000 for “Moby Doll”, serving notice that major aquariums were in the market for live animals.

During the next decade, hundreds of Killer Whales on the Pacific coast were trapped at least temporarily and about 50 were sold into captivity. Stampeded like cattle into makeshift pens, they were plucked from the water, trucked to airports and flown to aquariums all over the world. The “gold rush” frenzy at last aroused concern among researchers and the government. How many whales was it safe to catch before the population as a whole was put at risk? It was widely assumed that there were thousands of Killer Whales in coastal waters. But no one actually knew for sure. In 1971 government researchers based in Nanaimo led by Dr. Michael Bigg, conducted the first-ever Killer Whale census. It was repeated during the following two years and the results stunned the scientific community. Dr. Bigg concluded that there were only between 200 and 350 Killer Whales inhabiting the coast of British Columbia and Washington state, far fewer than had been supposed. As a result, in 1976 live capture of the animals ended and it has been illegal to take one ever since. Indeed, it is illegal nowadays to touch or even get too close to a Killer Whale in its natural habitat.

Who knows how close we came to wiping out the coastal Killer Whales? The population that inhabits the central coast seems to be as numerous as it ever was, but the southern population that visits Puget Sound in Washington state was reduced to 68 animals and although that number has increased it is still not known whether in the long-term this particular group of whales will survive. Dr. Bigg continued his research. He and his colleagues pioneered the technique known as photo identification by which they eventually identified and named every Killer Whale on the coast. Once individual animals had an identity, everything changed. The whales no longer resembled a cloud of Bees buzzing around a hive or a row of Blackbirds sitting on a wire, indistinguishable one from another. Instead they were individuals, each with its own physical appearance, its own family, its own life history and habits. And each individual could be followed and documented.

Dr. Bigg died of cancer, tragically young at the age of 51 in October 1990. But all that is known about Killer Whales around the world – and a lot is known – can be traced back to the original research done by him and his associates in British Columbia. Ironically it was also during the live capture era and perhaps because of it, that the Killer Whale underwent its image makeover. As the aquarium-going public grew familiar with them, the whales lost their fearsome reputation and became instead an icon of the marine world: handsome, intelligent, graceful, sociable, even cuddly, if a five-ton predator with a mouth full of teeth can ever be considered cuddly. The attitude toward the animals changed so completely that for many people it became anathema even to keep them in captivity. In 1996, the Vancouver Aquarium adopted a policy that precluded the collection of Killer Whales from the wild, not just in British Columbia but from anywhere. Its last two whales were acquired from Iceland. One died in 1997, while the other was relocated to San Diego four years later. Today’s British Columbia Killer Whales face new threats to their habitat, principally the depletion of the Salmon upon which they depend for food. Their future is far from secure. But the prognosis is better than it was 40 years ago when ignorance and greed conspired to bring them to the edge of destruction.

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