Without orcas, West Coast waters would be infinitely diminished in both magic and majesty. Yet just a half-century ago, Orcinus orca was generally viewed with such revulsion that it was sometimes harpooned. In 1964, one such incident occurred just off Saturna Island's East Point, in the southern Gulf Islands.
The original intent was simply to collect a dead orca, then commonly called a killer whale, for the purpose of modelling a sculpture that would hang in the newly opened Vancouver Aquarium's foyer. But the marine mammal, which is actually the largest member of the dolphin family, survived a skewering and shooting by the artist. Aquarium founding director Murray Newman decided to save the unfortunate juvenile — dubbed Moby Doll by local media, although it was later discovered to be a male — and it was towed across the Strait of Georgia into a pen at Burrard Dry Dock's shipyard, then to an enclosure at Jericho Beach, becoming the world's first orca to be displayed in a public-aquarium exhibit. Sadly, because of a skin infection, it survived less than three months.
In early May, the Saturna Heritage Centre and the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society once again jointly sponsored the Moby Doll Orca Symposium, the first in a nine-part, summer-long series of "seatalks." When reached by phone at his island home, symposium convener Richard Blagborne told Pique that inspiration for the initial gathering came after the recent restoration of the historic fog-alarm building located beside the East Point light station, a part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
"Of all the historic displays on exhibit, the one dealing with the capture of Moby Doll resonated most among visitors," he said. "We decided to use the story to further the objectives of the building, chiefly to encourage terrestrial whale-watching. There's something about sitting out front with the whales coming to see you, rather than going on a whale-watching tour, that appeals to numerous islanders who are disturbed by the dozens of boats that they see converging on whale pods throughout the summer."
As outlined by Blagborne, members of the southern-resident community of orcas follow an annual route on which pods swim past San Juan Island in Washington state — following salmon runs in the converging straits of Haro, Juan de Fuca, and Georgia — and then make their way north into Canadian waters.
"Where the whales go is largely decided by the salmon," he said.
"The narrowest section to open ocean water for the whales and salmon alike is around the southern tip of Saturna Island, where there is also a large colony of sea lions — another food source for orcas — that routinely haul out on offshore reefs. The whales come in next to Shell Beach, where we get our best shows just in front of the fog-alarm building."
When asked how the Moby Doll Orca Symposium squared with the objectives of the Saturna Heritage Centre, Blagborne said the concept resonates with scientists and citizens alike, a group he lightheartedly characterized as "orcaholics."
"Killer whales are the canaries in the mine shaft, if you will, and their survival reflects on the larger issues of the environment, such as the health of salmon stocks. The symposium was meant to support people who support marine conservancy. This is very much a Vancouver Aquarium story, both then and now."
To that end, presenters from the aquarium brought Moby Doll's skull for permanent display at the Fog Alarm Building.
Larry Peck, chair of the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society, told Pique that the symposium played an important role in mirroring changes in the public perception of orcas during the past 50 years.
"I think that at the time Moby Doll was harpooned, orcas were seen as a threat to both lives and livelihoods," he said. "The fact that he survived is critical; otherwise, they all would have been killed. Instead, we've learned a great deal and saved them from extinction. Human-introduced PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a persistent organic pollutant banned in Canada) pose the biggest threat to them now."
Peck credited Blagborne with first proposing the gathering. For his part, Blagborne said the heritage centre plans to host such symposiums on a regular basis. "Our group believes that Saturna is a great spot for marine education," he said. "It's a safe area with several good beaches. We can see all the superports from East Point — from the oil refinery at (Washington state's) Cherry Point to Roberts Bank's coal and container facility — and we think citizen science will be a useful tool in monitoring marine activity. To that end, we're hoping to eventually install underwater webcams and hydrophones so visitors can watch and listen to orcas."
The fog-alarm building at East Point lies at the opposite end of the island from the B.C. Ferries slip at Lyall Harbour, a distance of about 20 kilometres by road; it's open through October. Views of Mount Baker beckon from its doorstep, where smooth-faced, wave-sculpted sandstone shelves ripple down onto kelp-encrusted outcroppings. Find a sun-splashed alcove, settle in and warm up, then take a dip or launch a watercraft at nearby Shell Beach, where the air is perfumed by a hedge of wild roses. There she blows, indeed.
ACCESS: Details on Moby Doll and the Fog Alarm Building are posted at www.saturnaheritage.ca and www.saturnamarineresearch.ca. Saturna Island is a two- to three-hour ferry ride from B.C. Ferries' Tsawwassen terminal, via a transfer at Galiano or Mayne Island. For tourist information on Saturna, visit www.saturnatourism.com.
Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book. For details, visit www.jackchristie.com