For seventeen days this summer a killer whale known as Tahlequah carried the body of her dead calf through the steel-blue Pacific waters of the Salish Sea, the shared, coastal waters off British Columbia and Washington state. She nosed her baby above the chop, sometimes gently mouthing her flipper, diving deep to retrieve her whenever she lost her grip. Orcas have been known to carry their deceased young for hours at a time, sometimes even a day, in what scientists acknowledge are expressions of grief. But nothing like Tahlequah’s heartbreaking fifteen-hundred-kilometre journey of sorrow had ever been observed. It captured the world’s attention. To some, that seemed to be the intent.
The unusually attentive matriarch is among the seventy-four remaining southern resident killer whales who summer in the Salish Sea. They’re dying at an alarming pace, with starvation the main cause: local stocks of Chinook salmon, the rich, fatty fish they eat almost exclusively, are disappearing. Tahlequah’s daughter was born emaciated, lacking the blubber she needed to stay afloat. She lived just thirty minutes. This was likely the third time her twenty-year-old mother had lost a baby since delivering a healthy son in 2010. A few weeks later, scientists began injecting an ailing member of the pod with antibiotics by dart, a last-ditch effort to save the critically ill juvenile orca known as Scarlet. It has been three years since a southern resident survived infancy. If one doesn’t live to see toddlerhood in the next five, the current generation could be their last. (The 309 northern resident killer whales, whose territory stretches to Alaska, are threatened, too, though the population is still relatively stable.)
What was remarkable for those watching Tahlequah was not only the pathos of a mother grieving her daughter, but also the tender response of the wider community. While most animals abandon the weakest members of their tribe to disease and predators, Orcinus orca protect the elderly, injured, and diseased among them. So when exhaustion kicked in, members of Tahlequah’s tightly bonded pod carried the body of her bairn by turn, like pallbearers of the deep. They fed the grieving mother throughout her vigil.
The tale fits with a parade of such moving stories about orcas. We know rather a lot about how these cetaceans behave, and the historian Jason Colby posits that the irony-rich reason we know all we do about these magnificent beasts is that starting in the early 1960s we pulled them from the Salish Sea to put them on display. We have learned in this way about the profound, cradle-to-grave bond that weds an orca mother to her young, and how the animals communicate: a bewildering range of vocalizations, melodic dialects distinct to each community, often to each pod.
Colby’s new book, Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator, amounts to an argument: that captivity saved killer whales. Only in the course of people seeing them up close were their remarkably tender natures revealed. Long-held fears dissolved as we began to see them as individuals and kindred beings, he writes, “a transition that helped reframe our relationship with whales around the world.”
We were not always attuned to the emotional lives of orcas. Until the mid 1960s we knew virtually nothing about them. To scientists and whalers, orcas were bloodthirsty savages; to fishers of the Pacific Northwest, who shot at them willy-nilly, they were salmon-stealing vermin. The orca was “the demon of the seas,” the director of the Bronx Zoo William Hornaday wrote in 1910; a creature with “the appetite of a hog, the cruelty of a wolf, the courage of a bulldog and the most terrible jaws afloat.”
The new era kicked off in Vancouver in 1964, when Moby Doll, Tahlequah’s ancestor from the J pod, was harpooned and towed to Jericho Beach. The following year Seattle installed a northern resident named Namu at Pier 56 on the waterfront. The whales were sensations. The public flocked to their enclosures in dizzying numbers. Scientists and media flew in from around the globe to observe them. A dance craze, “the Namu,” was born.
New science began to pile up and the public’s opinion of the whales swung from terror to rapture, from butchery to idolatry. These cetaceans know joy and fear, frustration and anger. They understand their own motivations, their limitations. They learn. They teach. They dream when they sleep. They don’t just see and recognize the shapes and nature of their friends and enemies; their sophisticated biosonar allows them to see inside them. There is virtually no other creature on the planet so intelligent, compassionate, and emotional. Inside their gargantuan brains we have discovered the same von Economo neurons that hardwire humans for empathy and love and self-awareness—but in even larger relative numbers.
Others have helped advance the idea that captivity, however ugly, forever bonded us to these beasts, notably Colby’s close friend Mark Leiren-Young, whose book, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, told the extraordinary story of Moby Doll; and Operation Orca, by historian Daniel Francis and marine biologist Gil Hewlett on the rescue of an orphaned killer whale named Springer. But Colby, who teaches modern history at the University of Victoria, has produced an exhaustive, nuanced, essential account of the captures, unearthing a forgotten bit of Northwest history.
On an individual level, captivity was a catastrophe for all but a few whales. And it pushed the southern residents to the brink. In Colby’s account, hunted orcas are buzzed by low-flying planes, scared into traps by the deafening seal bombs exploding around them. They scream in terror. They allow themselves to be caught to try to free their siblings. They cry and howl for their mothers. Their backs are broken. They drown. They die gruesome deaths in hot planes, their “skin peeling away in sheets.”
Yet Colby is not a dispassionate observer. His father, a former curator of Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, was a “cropper,” as the orca hunters called themselves. While John Colby is rarely mentioned in this book, the author’s stake in this story is clear. Critics may label him an apologist for suggesting that orcas owe their survival as a species to the humans who captured them for profit. Readers may wonder whether there’s a boy in him somewhere who wants to make his dad whole again by reframing the story.
Then in wanders Ted Griffin, the book’s tragic hero. Griffin is equal parts American impresario and animal lover. At the age of twenty-six he opened the Seattle Marine Aquarium. He was a cropping pioneer and the first person to swim publicly with an orca: Namu, with whom he formed an obsessive, almost mystical relationship. Griffin was feted across America and consulted by the Pentagon. Hollywood based a movie on his friendship with the whale. But then fates were reversed: the public’s opinion of captivity started to change as an environmental movement centred in the Pacific Northwest began to emerge. Griffin, the man most associated with killer whales in the region, was hounded as a pariah, and fled Seattle. He’s now in his mid-eighties and still receiving death threats from those who oppose the capture and display of cetaceans. He refuses to speak about the era of captivity, in a way reminiscent of veterans who remain silent about their time at war.
It would have taken an unusual writer to draw out his story. The son of a man who nursed a seabird to health before turning around and selling it to a zoo perhaps knew where to probe. When Griffin, who used to sleep on Namu’s back, admits to Colby that he trusted the whale in a way that he didn’t trust people—placed a faith in the creature that, as Colby writes, exceeded what he was “willing to offer [to] or accept from any human”—the reader understands this was a book that only Colby could have written. As a boy Griffin slept in the doghouse with his family’s English mastiffs and built a makeshift dive helmet so he could explore the marine world that so obsessed him. It seems almost understatement to say that he was above all else an animal lover—just as Colby’s dad and so many involved in the industry, paradoxically, are. Most have seldom been seen as anything but cartoonish villains. I spoke with Colby after I read his book, and he told me that he showed his manuscript to Griffin. After reading it Griffin said he understood, for the first time, why people had picketed and threatened him.
This is a book called Orca, but it is as much about the humans whose life’s work was chasing, displaying, and caring for these beasts. It tracks a shift in several overlapping narratives. The orcas went from feared to fetishized to suddenly enveloped in human shame and guilt just as the Pacific Northwest, a region built around the extraction of fish, logs, and seals began suddenly deifying the natural environment. Looking back, it seems entirely obvious that those involved in the captivity industry should have known better. In Colby’s telling, they are caught in the middle, trying to understand the complex mix of affection and callousness they feel for the whales, the torment caused to themselves and the rapidly changing world around them.
Orca is awash with players like Griffin: grizzled, deeply guarded men haunted by their remorse, and by their respect for the whales. In Colby’s hands they emerge as complex, fully formed, if doomed figures. In the view of the Greeks, tragedies don’t happen to awful people. They happen to good people who are awfully flawed.
As he finished his research, Jason Colby realized the last three southern residents ever taken from the Salish Sea had been captured by his dad. John, by the time of this discovery, had turned against cetacean captivity. When the author called his father to tell him what he had learned, the line went silent for fifteen seconds. This was news to his father, too. “We wrestle with our sins our whole lives,” Colby told me when we spoke. “My dad was twenty-five years old when he caught those whales. His whole life, he wrestled with wanting to make amends.”