First Captive Killer Whale Harpooned

When the Vancouver Aquarium needed a model for a scale-sized orca display for its new entrance hall, sculptor Samuel Burich harpooned an orca whale on this day in 1964. Later named Moby Doll, the whale was the first captive orca, or killer whale, displayed in a public aquarium exhibit.

Commissioned by the Vancouver Aquarium to fashion a life-size model based on an actual orca for its new British Columbia Hall, Burich was instructed to first find and kill an orca. He set up a harpoon gun on Saturna Island in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. After two months of waiting and watching, Burich observed a pod of 13 orcas approaching the shore. On 16 July 1964 he harpooned a young whale. The orca was stunned by the force and two members of its pod came to its aid and pushed the young whale to the surface to breathe. It appeared to regain life, then struggled to escape the harpooner, jumping, smashing its tail and emitting whistles so shrill they could be heard above the water’s surface some 90 metres away.

Burich tried to kill the whale by firing several rifle shells at it, but it didn’t die, so instead, he towed the 4.5-metre-long, 1-ton whale back to Vancouver, 16 hours “through choppy seas and blinding squalls.” The whale was put in a makeshift pen at Burrard Drydocks, where she became the first killer whale displayed in a public exhibit.

The Vancouver Aquarium held a contest to name the whale, choosing the name Moby Doll. Scientists, researchers, and hordes of people came to see Moby Doll, but she was listless and did not eat for the first two months of captivity. According to observers, she seemed to be in shock and refused everything she was given, from salmon to horse hearts, preferring instead to circle the pool day and night in a counterclockwise pattern. After some 55 days in captivity, Moby Doll was offered lingcod. She took it, eventually eating 50 kilograms of cod that day. What her keepers hadn’t realised is that resident killer whales only eat fish, not warm-blooded prey. They had been attempting to feed her food she had never encountered and wasn’t designed to digest.

In fact, so little was known about orcas at that time that Moby Doll’s handlers didn’t realise the low salinity of the harbor water led the exhausted whale to develop a skin disease. A month later, after some 87 days in captivity, Moby Doll died. Her autopsy revealed Moby Doll was, in fact, a male orca. Newspapers around the world chronicled his death, with the Times of London giving Moby Doll’s obituary a two-column heading. Though he was savagely harpooned and ill-cared for, Moby Doll, who received some of the first positive press on killer whales, marked the beginning of an important change in public opinion toward orcas.