Beginning of the Orca Trade

In November 1961 a collecting crew from one of the first dolphinaria in the US - Marineland of the Pacific - near Los Angeles in California, captured a female orca found swimming erratically in nearby Newport harbor. The 5.2m (17ft) killer whale was placed in a tank at Marineland where she repeatedly crashed into the walls. She died the following day.

In 1962 the same crew managed to lasso a female whale with a hoop net in Puget Sound, off the north-west coast of the US, but the line tangled around the propeller shaft and immobilized the boat. When the whale and her male companion charged the boat, thumping it with their tail flukes, the frightened Marineland crew fired at the whales, killing the female and injuring the male, who swam off.

Two years later, the Vancouver Pacific Aquarium hired sculptor Samuel Burich to go out and kill an orca to use as a life-size model on which to base an exhibit. An orca pod was sighted close to the Gulf Islands, off the coast of British Columbia, and Burich fired a harpoon into a young whale's back but this failed to kill it. Before he could finish the job with a rifle, aquarium director Murray Newman arrived by seaplane and suggested they try to bring the whale in alive. Using the line attached to the harpoon, they towed the orca through rough seas on a 16-hour journey to Vancouver harbour, where it was placed in a makeshift pen. Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of people from around the world came to see 'Moby Doll', the first of these legendary killers to be placed in captivity, and to marvel at its docility. The harpoon wound healed but the whale wouldn't eat until, on the 55th day, it began to take food, devouring up to 90kg (200lbs) of fish a day. Within a month however, the whale was dead. The autopsy revealed that 'Moby Doll' was in fact 'Moby Dick', a male not a female.

The saga of 'Moby Whatever' convinced aquarium keepers that orcas would adapt to captivity, that they were not as dangerous as legend had portrayed them and that, like other zoo animals, they could be trained to perform stunts by using food as a reward. Moreover, their notoriety as killers combined with their panda-like attractiveness, had the potential to draw unprecedented crowds to aquaria. They were right on all counts.

In 1965, the Seattle Public Aquarium in Washington State paid $8,000 for Namu, a big male, that had been accidentally caught by Canadian gill net fishermen. Four months later, Ted Griffen, owner of the Aquarium, and his assistant Don Goldsberry, netted Shamu, a prospective mate for Namu, in Puget Sound. The two whales performed together until the following year when Namu died. With the sale of Shamu to Sea World in San Diego, the trade in orcas began in earnest.

The Griffin-Goldsberry team were the first to develop successful methods for the capture and transport of orcas, and their capture technique is still in use today off the coast of Iceland. Purse seine nets are used to surround a pod of orcas, sometimes in open water but more often in a shallow bay or inlet. Ironically, the whales could easily jump over the nets or break through them but few orcas have ever attempted to escape. Selected whales are then hoisted from the water where they are cooled by water or shaved ice. They are then ready for transport by boat, truck or cargo plane to any location in the world.

By the end of 1968, Griffin and Goldsberry had carried out four such capture operations in the Pacific Northwest region and had taken 13 whales, three of which ended up at Sea World after spending some time in Seattle. The others were sold to aquaria in New York, Florida, Texas, Canada and England, and to the US Navy in Hawaii.

The growing market prompted a group of Canadian net fishermen across the border at Pender Harbour, British Columbia, to begin catching orcas. In 1968 and 1969 they made three trips and captured 12 orcas, which were sent to the Vancouver Aquarium, to Marineland of France and to Sea World's competitors in California - Marineland of the Pacific and Marine World near San Francisco. Several other fishermen in British Columbia caught orcas accidentally and these too were sold.

At this time, there were no regulations governing the catching of killer whales and, potentially, anyone who wished to try their luck at it could do so. In practice, however, a would-be captor had to know the sea and to have had some experience with marine animal collection and seine nets. That limited the field considerably. No one at that time knew much about orcas and early capture techniques evolved by trial and error. As a result, some orcas that were stunned by tranquilizer darts were lost in the ocean; several others became entangled in nets and drowned. That was the price of the learning curve.

When the whales arrived at their new homes, many died prematurely, some from injuries caused by their capture and transport, others from what aquarium directors today consider poor conditions: small tank size, inadequate water pumping facilities and excessive or inept handling in the tank. Before 1970, half of all aquarium orcas died during their first two years in captivity, most in the first year. There were a few exceptions. Ten orcas caught before 1970 survived ten years or more and two of these have now passed the 20-year mark - the record for longevity in captivity.

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