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. 

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In California, a Marineland expert feared Moby Doll would develop ulcers from the stress. One British Columbia resident went so far as to write the Fisheries Minister: “Those scientists should be taken out and harpooned for what they are doing to the whale.”

As Moby Doll was led into Vancouver’s harbor, there were even doomsday whispers that the captive whale would bring “terrible disaster” to the city. Instead, it brought an onslaught of media and visitors. A dry dock had been flooded as a pen for Moby Doll, and 10,000 spectators came for a glimpse one Sunday, according to newspaper articles at the time. Moby would be the whale that would change public sentiment about orcas. 

Everything was new to Newman and his colleagues, who had never kept such close quarters with a killer whale before. First, there was the harpoon wound on its back that had to be treated, but trying to inject penicillin into Moby Doll’s thick skin proved difficult. Again and again, the syringes would end up at the bottom of Moby’s pen, thoroughly defeated. 

Then there was the issue of feeding Moby. “To begin with, the literature said killer whales ate the tongues of big whales,” said Newman. “So when we tried to feed Moby Doll, we got meat from the tongues of some of the whales that had been killed at the whaling station.” The whale’s response? “Moby Doll seemed disgusted by this idea,” said Newman.

Finally, Moby’s keepers offered it fish. Success, at last. But the whale’s tentative appetite worried the scientists. “It is like a man eating a peanut,” researcher Patrick McGeer observed after Moby took its first small meal in days.

The scientists didn’t even know what gender the whale was. The assumption was that the whale was female, hence the name Moby Doll. Only after its death would they figure out that “she” was in fact “he.” 

Newman ultimately arranged for Moby to live in a larger pen on a Canadian military base, while he searched for a permanent home. After a traumatic move—Moby reportedly cried in “wild, panic squeaks, some of them sounding like the plaintive whimpers of a puppy”—she appeared “contented” in her new home. The Star Weekly printed, “There she seems prepared to live happily ever after.”

But the whale didn’t. Moby Doll died after about 87 days in captivity, well short of the normal 30 to 50-year lifespan of an orca. Problems with the water’s salinity in Moby’s pen proved fatal. But for many, Moby’s short life was a success. Moby Doll taught his captors many things about whale behavior. Scientist dipped hydrophones into his cage to record his cries and clicks, and slowly but surely they were discovering how to feed and care for Moby.

But Moby Doll also showed the public at large that orcas could be successfully captured—and moreover, that they were great tourist attractions. 

Newman said he was devastated at Moby’s death. At first, he wouldn’t even let the media photograph Moby’s body. “It would be like photographing the body of your poor old maiden aunt,” he told The Province newspaper. 

Nowadays, in the second story of a cozy house near the end of a sleepy road in West Vancouver, Newman sits in his armchair and reflects about the past. Outside, across the bay, the debate over whales in captivity continues, half a century later.  The Vancouver Aquarium hasn’t housed any orcas since 2001, but a planned expansion has critics worrying that more belugas and dolphins will be added to its collection. Meanwhile, the hit 2013 documentary Blackfish has revived concerns about captive orcas and the safety of their human trainers. 

“We’re never perfect. We do as well as we can,” Newman sighs. The sight in his bright eyes, blue like a tropical sea, has started to fade. Moby catapulted Newman to fame, but it has come at a cost. Newman had studied fish his entire life, and he had to sacrifice his interest in fish as whales rose to popularity. As head of the aquarium, he endured “an awful lot of opposition and hostility and unpleasantness” over the captive whale, Newman said. 

All the effort was worth it, at least for Newman. Moby Doll “provided us with the awareness that its behavior was less aggressive and less dangerous and more complex than we realized,” Newman said. Perceptions shifted, and orcas—for better or worse—have become entertainment darlings. All in 50 years. Quite simply, as Newman says, “it’s a totally different world we’re living in today.”

Newman keeps an illustration of orcas amid his books- Photo: Carlos Tello

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