by: Tristan Risk "Little Miss Risk"
Most people notice if their granny goes missing. This extends beyond the scope of species to include a large portion of the animal kingdom which has elaborate communal living, in which the matriarch plays a key role. A recent study of residential orcas off the coast of Vancouver found some interesting similarities between us and the denizens of the deep. It was noted that female orcas experience a slow down and halting of ovulation, resulting in menopause. This is a result of allowing the older female orcas - who can live up to 100 years - to assist their daughters in raising their calves. In elephants, the matriarch leads the herd to water in times of drought form memory to ensure the herd's survival. This assisting in raising their offspring's children is a way of assuring that their genes have the best possible rate of survival. While our nearest simian relatives - chimpanzees - go through a decline in their egg production and fertility, they never go through full menopause. But there is a unifying factor and strange reassurance that when I get to the age where I'm experiencing hot flashes, mood swings, and bone depletion that somewhere out there a residential orca off the coast named J2 or 'Granny' who has gone through the same thing before me. It's the kind of thing that makes for inter-species empathy and understanding. But it wasn't always like that between humans and orcas.
While their likeness graces tourist tat on the west coast in the shape of cuddly stuffed animals and tea towels, orcas were once known by the less media-friendly moniker of 'killer whales'. Up until the 60s, people didn't interact with them much beyond seafarers, fishermen and the like. They were only known by their reputation for being fierce pack hunters who liked to steal fish from human huntsman. The First Nations recognized this keen hunting technique and had a much nicer name for the black and white giants of 'sea wolves', but no matter how one sliced it, the general perception of these animals were akin to sharks, giant squids and other sea leviathans of whom we knew very little. With their only interactions of humans coming from angry fishermen denied their catches and whaling practices, interspecies relationships were understandably strained.
The game changer I can call to mind came in 1964 off the coast of Saturna Island in the B.C. coastline. The fledgling Vancouver Aquarium had commissioned an artist but the name of Samuel Burich to kill and orca in order to make a life-sized sculpture out of it for the BC Hall. Burich managed to harpoon and shoot a male orca, but it didn't die. Instead, the founding director of the Aquarium, Murray Newman, requested the whale be brought back live for display. Nicknamed Moby Doll, under the assumption that it was female, the orca was brought back to the Burrard Drydocks to a pen and displayed to a curious public. The poor whale seemed lethargic, swimming in counter-clockwise circles in his pen, no doubt depressed and despondent after being removed from his family unit. Moby Doll malingered, having been offered a variety of inappropriate food options (horse's hearts? Really? Where was he supposed to be finding THAT in the ocean?) and likely infection from his wounds, eventually died. However, given that this was the first oppertunity that anyone had really had to study an orca up close, it was pounced upon by the scientific community. Indeed, it had only been the second ever orca captured, and the gender faux pas was quickly confirmed when a young child saw the whale sporting an erection. The value of live orcas over dead ones dawns on we advanced apes at that moment. Moby Doll's death was sort of the beginning of the end, and ushered in a new era of interest in these residents of the coastal waters.
From Sea Monster To Granny: The Perception of The Killer Whale
With that, it begun the interest in keeping orcas in captivity. Some came under the guise of genuine academic interest in oscines orca, but a number of folks got disquieting little dollar signs where their eyeballs should be, and saw the potential commercial revenue from keeping one for show. While all this was well and good as more and more people started to see orcas as more than just mindless killers of the deep, this started a rather unfortunate trend of capturing and keepings whales in captivity for profit. An example of this that sparked a chain of misery that would go on for decades was the ill-fated Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay, B.C. Opened in 1969 and closed in November 1992, this saw the capture of it's first orca in 1968 with the male Haida. Over the course of a number of years, they would periodically capture him mates, each of whom died. A partial albino named Chimo, Nootka II, who died 9 months after her capture, and the third Nootka III. A wounded female, Miracle, was also captured in 1977, and animal rights groups were putting growing pressure to release Haida, given the restrictive pool sizes... I don't want to suggest anything a amiss, but when my research found that Haida mysteriously died a few days before his scheduled release in October in 1982, I raised my eyebrow all the way up to my hairline. In my witchy heart of hearts, I think that any spirits of the deceased orcas called down a curse on Sealand for the misery it wrought it's captives. After buying three orcas from Iceland, Tillikum, Nootka IV, and Haida II, shit took a turn for the worse that saw the attack and drowning of a trainer that was the death knell of Sealand, and would begin a hellish journey for Tillikum, whom most know best from 'Blackfish' fame.
For those of you who don't live on a coastline, and do not have orcas as your neighbours, there are two varieties. There are the residential orcas and the transients. While transients often hunt in more variable groups, they also tend to cover more territory and their diet consists primarily of seals and sea lions. When we think of the term 'killer whale' it's likely that these were the orcas that were observed in their hunting. Resident orcas have tighter knit families and social groups (pods) and feed on salmon, and follow the salmon runs in the same areas over the year. Pods can be distinguished by their on unique dialects, much like the way you can acertain whether you are speaking to someone from the East Coast of Canada or from Alabama. The orcas who live in the Straight Of Georgia, off the Vancouver coastline falls into the residential category, with the same family members growing and living together over the course of generations. I know this because I thought at the age of nine I was going to be eaten by them when swimming alongside my family's anchored sailboat in Shallow Bay on Suscia Island. I hadn't noticed the pod enter the bay but was alerted by my mother, who was panicked that her offspring might get gobbled like a chicken McNugget. I hastily got out of the water, and we watched the family swim past us, and cast curious eyes up at us from under the water. Turns out, these whales were no more interested in my that a vegan in a rib eye, but then again, wild animals are wild animals, and always ought to be respected. I was hypnotized, and when I researched with locals found that these whales regularly came into this little bay to rub themselves along the smooth stones that lay on the bottom. The magic of that close encounter has never left me to this day.
While films like Free Willy and Blackfish continue to make people rally and demand freedom for orcas, many still remain in captivity. However, we are progressing towards their captivity being phased out, though not quickly enough for my own tastes. I recall one of those days when I had nothing to eat all day except for two pot cookies and some black coffee, and found myself walking through Vancouver's Stanley Park, which is a peninsula where the Vancouver Aquarium is located. The aquarium is situated close enough to the ocean that my THC-hazed brain begun to wonder if the remaining belugas (of which have since died in captivity) could hear the ocean, and potentially other whales in the inlet. While I’m aware that sound does travel faster underwater, it’s also a fact that whales, belugas in particular have amazing hearing. While humans typically have a hearing range of 64-23,000 Hertz, belugas boast a whopping 1,000-123,000. My mind took the turn of considering if they could hear any fellow whales out in Coal Harbour or Burrard Inlet, and vice versa. With at least one in captivity being wild-caught and one born on the inside the exsistetial horror of the situation hit me: What if these whales were not only self-aware of their captivity and that freedom in open ocean wasn’t so far removed from them, but ultimately comprehended the hopelessness of their situation? Given my state of mind at the time, I freaked, considering for the first time in my mind if they knew that the ocean was at once so close and yet so far away. Reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Village', I panicked, and called my boyfriend of the time, looking for reassurance. 'How many pot cookies did you eat?' he asked me. 'THAT'S NOT THE POINT!' I remember screeching into the phone, startling the young family going into the aquarium. In then end he gaslighted me into thinking I was just baked, but the thought never really sat well with me.
The last of the belugas at the Vancouver Aquarium died last year. Wild-caught mother and captive-born daughter, within two weeks of each other. There is no medical reason why, other than vet's saying an indeterminate virus, but I'm guessing it was a hefty dose of heartbreak and ennui. While the Vancouver Aquarium still technically 'owns' a few other belugas, on loan to other marine parks, the debate in Vancouver has flared up, once again, about the ethics of keeping captive cetaceans. I, for one, would like to see these situations ended for good. When you consider that India has considered dolphins and whales as non-human citizens since 2013, you have to question why the rest of the world is taking it's sweet-ass time catching up to that sentiment. But I also appreciate that the Vancouver Aquarium has dropped some serious cash into renovations, and would likely cry foul if all of a sudden they couldn't utilize that space. While I am all for rehabilitation of injured sea mammals, I would like to put forth the proposal to use that space, employ humans, further conservation education and as a cherry on top, create an attraction to rival any whale show. If we take a page from the long-running underwater mermaid shows of Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida, we can see the appeal and attraction that gives a chance to demonstrate both underwater artistry and educate about conservation of our coastline
There, I fixed it.