Speared. Shot. Celebrity. How one whale transformed the orca's public image
Fifty years ago, one orca named "Moby Doll" sparked whale entertainment and changed the public image of killer whales forever.
Sam Burich resumed his post. It was July 16, and Burich was standing guard on a tiny spit of limestone, jutting into the North Pacific. He had been there for weeks.
He looked out toward the water, where the U.S.-Canadian border lay a few miles offshore. His harpoon gun was oriented to the sea, and he was looking to kill.
Burich, then 38, was “a burly, barrel-chested man,” compared in looks to an early Hemingway. And like one of Hemingway’s famous protagonists, he was on the hunt for a big fish. Blackfish, to be specific. That was what fishermen used to call orcas in the Pacific Northwest.
Noon was fast approaching when Burich saw the orca pod drifting past. Saturna Island, Canada, was famous for that. Whales would swim straight up to the island, which was exactly why Burich and the harpoon gun were perched upon its coast. The old-fashioned gun was trained on its prey. As one observer described, it was “splendidly lethal despite its vintage.”
The hunt happened exactly 50 years ago, back when the world viewed orcas in an entirely different way. In 1964, orcas were still thought to be bloodthirsty monsters, a menace to both humans and their fisheries. But that perception was about to be overthrown. In its place, a whole industry would emerge, dedicated to exhibiting—or, some might say, enslaving—orcas. And it all started on the limestone coast of Saturna Island.
Generations have passed since that 1964 expedition, and few of its participants remain alive. Murray Newman, however, remembers it well. He hasn’t had the chance to forget. Newman, who was born in Chicago, was the man behind the whole operation. The whale hunt would come to define his career.
Newman was plucked straight out of university to become the founding director of the Vancouver Aquarium on Canada’s west coast. Both he and the institution were young at the time, and they had a lot to prove. Newman hoped to create a “different kind of aquarium,” unlike anything else in Canada.
To crown its lobby would be a giant statue suspended in midair. “I visualized a sculpture killer whale, which would be scientifically accurate, but beautiful as a sculpture,” said Newman, looking back. “I visualized the aquarium where people’s appreciation of life in the oceans and the fresh water would be created, where we would learn to appreciate and love these things, and have a reason to look after them in nature and conserve them.”
But to do that—to make that coveted statue-- a whale had to be killed. It was a brutal venture. But how else could you get close to one of the world’s most dangerous beasts, much less make a statue of one?
Back on Saturna Island, Burich had his harpoon gun trained on a whale he thought to be smaller than the rest of its pod. Their eyes met. “It looked me right in the eye, and I looked right back,” Burich later told the newspapers. “I just let her have it.”
Six hundred feet of line, three buoys and a spear suddenly connected Burich to his 15-foot-long quarry. The whale was stabbed. Burich was the sculptor Newman commissioned to make the whale statue, and he had just captured his own model.
All that was left to do was to wait until the whale died, as so many others had done along the British Columbian coast. Between 1905 and 1967, an estimated 24,000 large whales fell victim to the province’s whaling industry.
Orcas in particular were reviled as competition for fishermen. A Browning .50 caliber machine gun was even installed on Quadra Island—not far from Saturna—to blast orcas out of the water, though it was ultimately never used. Meanwhile, the public read horror stories of orcas stalking humans. One Life Magazine article in 1964 explained that orcas were “one of the deadliest species on earth, with a bloodthirsty reputation matched only by sharks.”
No one would miss one extra orca shot from the seas. Besides, it was the style to have a statement piece in the front of a museum. As a child in Chicago, Newman remembered going to the local Field Museum and being greeted by a pair of large African elephants, preserved through taxidermy. He imagined his orca statue offering the same sense of awe and wonder to the young visitors of the Vancouver Aquarium.