Care of Florence McCambridge, TVA Volunteer

I was introduced to killer whales in the same way that many of you were. The whales were performing at an aquarium, and I was mesmerized from the moment I saw them. Years later I spent an afternoon whale watching during a trip to Vancouver and was fortunate enough to see a killer whale up close in the wild, which was a profound experience that I will never forget.

But other than being fascinated from afar, I’ve never really taken the time to learn more about orcas. That’s why I recently decided to read Mark Leiren-Young’s The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, a book I’d heard such good things about it since it was first released last year. And I’m so happy I did because this book taught me a lot. The Killer Whale Who Changed the World tells the story of how we stopped fearing these whales as “killers” and grew to respect them as “orcas”.

It started in 1964 when a young killer whale was captured near B.C. and put on display at the Vancouver Aquarium. Crowds flocked to see the whale, who had been named Moby Doll. Staff had to control the numbers, only letting in around five hundred people at a time. Some visitors were disappointed because the whale seemed smaller in real life. Some were bored, since the whale didn’t really do much other than swim:
“The whole scene was like a classic movie about first contact with an alien or a monster. What happens when it arrives? Everyone panics, the villagers break out their guns and torches, and they either kill it or capture it and put the alien on display. Before he escaped and climbed the Empire State Building, King Kong was chained in a Broadway theatre, surrounded my showgirls. Just as the captive Kong appeared harmless, once people saw a killer whale up close—trapped in our world—the ancient fear of the apex predator began to evaporate. The wolf of the sea had become the ocean’s cuddly kitty.The grizzly was now a panda.”

In addition to learning the fascinating story of Moby Doll, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World also taught me about the idea of culture within orca pods. Orcas are famous for their empathy. They care for each other, they share food. Each pod has its own dialect, taught to them by their elders. They hunt together and risk their lives for each other. “Orcas fit every definition for humanity humans have come up with that doesn’t require opposable thumbs.” By the time I was done reading this book, I had gained so much respect not just for orcas, but also for the brave men and women around the world who are still fighting to see an end to killer whale captivity.

The Vancouver Aquarium may have been the place where killer whales were first introduced to the world, but in 1996 it was also the first place to declare it would no longer capture cetaceans in the wild. And five years later, it became one of the first to voluntarily stop displaying orcas. And yet, with another recent death of a captive-born orca, it’s clear that we still have some work to do. But thanks to books like The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, people are paying attention to this issue like never before. And with that, change will happen.

The Killer Whale Who Changed the World by Mark Leiren-Young is published by Greystone Books and is now available in paperback.