The picture attached to this post in of “Moby Doll.” More accurately, it is of most of his skull.
The small building on Saturna Island BC that houses Moby's skull is kept in a museum, inside what was once a lighthouse/fog alarm building. The original Eastpoint lighthouse was built in the late 1800s and later replaced with a more modern structure in 1949, built on the same spot. The lighthouse itself is gone now, but the fog alarm building remains.
The walk up to the structure followed along a gently sloping path, passing windswept grasses whose movements looked for all intent like the gentle roll of waves upon the open ocean. The lighthouse had been built – as most are – on a point, adjacent to a rocky bluff, in an area that must have once been greatly treacherous to navigate without aid.
There were historic pictures and small displays set among the whitewashed walls and a plain interior, left unadorned sans a few mysterious hand-painted friezes on the bare walls. Although the building and exhibits felt historical in nature, it wasn't until rounding the corner into the second room, that a sense of tragic history washed over me all at once.
Encased in a glass display case, in the back room of the fog house museum, sits a sub-adult male orca's skull, staring into forever.
I think in some vague form I was cognizant of “Moby Doll” and the story of the first orca taken into captivity and displayed. But the full, excruciatingly tragic story of “Moby” goes far, far beyond what I think was I prepared to encounter that day.
In 1964, a sculptor was commissioned by the Vancouver Aquarium to create a full-sized (and truly life-like) model of a killer whale. No real decent representations existed in life-size of an orca, so the sculptor needed a live example for his creation.
What follows is hard for me to write, even though it is fifty years after the event, of which I wasn't even aware of until confronted with “Moby's” remains.
To get their “model” for the sculptor, people set up a land-based harpoon gun, not far from where the lighthouse is located. Two months of waiting paid off, when a pod of 12 orcas swam within firing range of the harpoon.
They fired the gun. It struck its intended target just above the eye patch.
PBS, A Whale of a Business, shares this eyewitness account of what happen next: "Immediately, two pod members came to the aid of the stunned whale, pushing it to the surface to breathe. Then the whale seemed to come to life and struggled to free itself--jumping and smashing its tail and, according to observers, uttering 'shrill whistles so intense that they could easily be heard above the surface of the water 300 feet away.' Burich set off in a small boat to finish the job. He fired several rifle shells at the whale...but the orca did not die.”
That would only be the beginning of an unimaginable hell for “Moby.”
Finding that he (which at the time, and until his death, they believed to be a female – hence the moniker “Moby Doll”) had not only survived, but was not readily dying, aquarium heads saw an opportunity. They used the embedded harpoon to tow the young orca back to Vancouver.
It took 16 hours, in choppy waves and a near squall. The intense pain of his injuries being renewed with every tug of the ropes on the harpoon tip, still in his head, is unimaginable.
They put “Moby” into a hastily-erected sea pen at the Burrard Drydocks and then quickly discovered they had no clue how to care for him.
After failed attempts to feed the young orca various meats – including horse meat -, over a period of days, someone tried (quite by chance) to toss “Moby” a lingcod. The now starving whale took the fish, and devoured it.
87 days after being harpooned, shot and dragged to Vancouver, “Moby Doll” perished from a combination of disease (contracted after capture) and likely the extent of his injuries.
But the young orca swimming endless circles in the small sea pen, became a sensational oddity and attraction to the curious, who willingly parted with fistfuls of cash to gawk at “Moby Doll.” The dollar signs lit ablaze in the eyes of marine park and aquarium owners everywhere. There was money in these orcas.
That was the beginning of one of the most-shameful and corrupted endeavors of the Human experience: Orca whale captivity.
I touched the glass. In my head I said that I was sorry for what we'd done.
I was numb after I left the lighthouse. I couldn't even begin to process the sorrow within me.
I still can't fully.