BOOK REVIEW: Killer Whales

Killer Whales

Killer Whales, published in 1978, is a book that suffers from the fact that its values and information are from a different era—one in which the captive-orca industry was just taking off, and the business of capturing the animals for show was more or less a free-for-all.

The author notes,

Killer whales have not been kept in captivity long enough for scientists to observe their life span.

Unfortunately, today’s data indicates that their life expectancies are significantly shortened in captivity. Orca lives also, were at one time, significantly shortened by harpoons belonging to public aquariums. It seems that far from the benevolent, family-friendly image projected by today’s aquariums, the institutions were once downright bloodthirsty:

In 1964, the Vancouver Public Aquarium mounted a harpoon gun on a point of land jutting out into the waters of British Columbia. Killer whales were often seen off the shore, and the aquarium wanted to get a specimen for study. On July 16, a young male killer was harpooned as he was swimming about sixty-five feet offshore. The harpoon entered the whale and passed through him. The whale appeared to be stunned by the shot. Two other whales from the pod swam alongside and assisted him to the surface for the first two or three minutes. The whale slowly recovered.

Undaunted by this show of animal empathy and intelligence, it wasn’t long before the VPL were up to their old tricks again. And therein lays the sad story of “Moby Doll,” the first orca to survive for any length of time in captivity. The famed whale was originally harpooned to be brought back to the Vancouver Public Aquarium as a dead specimen. The other whales attempted to help the injured young male as his distress calls filled the air. Moby managed to survive the harpooning and the grueling 16-hour tow to Vancouver.

Presented with this, instead of killing Moby, the Aquarium reversed its plans and instead decided to exhibit him alive. His first response was adopting the stereotypical repetitive movements we now recognize as a symptom of stress:

As soon as the whale was placed in the dry dock, it began swimming in slow, counter clockwise circles. It was to keep the same swimming pattern for the rest of its life in captivity.

Although Moby Doll caused much excitement and interest from the public, he quickly succumbed to illness.

He had been kept alive in captivity for eighty-six days. His death was due to multiple infections of different kinds.

I imagine harpoons will do that.

A chapter titled “How Killer Whales are Captured and Trained” is as facepalm-inducing to whale advocates as one might imagine.

Most of the killer whales that have been captured were taken in Puget Sound or in the waters of British Columbia. These places not only have a large killer whale population, but provide areas in which whales can be trapped. Over the past fifteen years, several hundred have been trapped and, of these, over fifty have been taken. Most of the other whales were released alive, but, unfortunately, a few died during the capture operations.

Eventually, the capturing debacles staged by Sea World and other institutions got so over-the-top that the laws were tightened, thus ushering in by necessity today’s era of captive breeding.

On several occasions the author parrots lines put forth by marine parks:

All of the things killer whales are trained to do are exaggerations of natural behavior patterns. Once the whales are trained they seem to enjoy performing, and being in shows does not harm them in any way, nor are they made to look like clowns.

Ok, we’re getting a bit ridiculous here, folks. This line comes shortly after the author’s admission that whales have been killed during capture operations for public aquariums. Obviously, whales were being harmed in a big way. As for looking like clowns, I’d like to note that this was also the era in which a popular orca trick was to have the animal swim around the pool wearing giant sunglasses.

To his credit, the author does include a passage acknowledging the arguments of those who are opposed to the captive orca industry:

Some scientists are beginning to argue that killer whales should no longer be hunted for any reason, not even for aquariums. They claim that too many killer whales die as a result of attempts to capture them. … These scientists think that anyone who wants to capture a killer whale ought to have to get a special permit, and that the permits ought to be given only rarely—and for a good reason.

However, with lines like “The killer whale has also benefited by being displayed before the public,” it’s pretty obvious what side the writer is biased toward.

While unrelated to the orcas-in-captivity debate, I found the author’s defense of predatory animals quite interesting and forward-thinking:

It is true that the sight of a pod of killer whales surrounding and tearing at a herd of sea lions or a young gray whale is not for people who are squeamish. … In any event, the sight of a killer whale hunt is probably less upsetting than the sight of cattle being butchered in a slaughterhouse.

Exactly. We make monsters out of other species, without wishing to acknowledge our own monstrous capacity for violence. Unfortunately, in the story of our relationship with the orcas, they have at times been our victims as well.

(Review originally appeared at


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lonny Barthel
    Oct 24, 2011 @ 21:43:32

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