Book review – Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator

Orcas or killer whales have been at the centre of a swirling controversy for decades. Popular attractions in aquaria, their plight there has been highlighted in recent books and documentaries, further strengthening opposition to keeping cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity. However, as Jason M. Colby meticulously documents in this book, there is a cruel irony at play here: this very practice of captivity is what raised our environmental awareness in the first place.


Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator“, written by Jason M. Colby, published by Oxford University Press in July 2017 (hardback, 394 pages)

Colby’s book centres on the Pacific Northwest coast, where both Canada and the USA and several orca pods meet, and spans almost eight decades, from the early 1940s to the present. Before the public thought of orcas as gentle giants, they thought of them as fearsome killers and pests to be eradicated. Back then, the economy in the area was an extractive one, with many people living off logging and fishing. Orcas were seen as unwelcome competition, accused of decimating the salmon stock on which they fed. Though not targeted by the whaling industry (still in full swing at this point), fishermen did regularly shoot at orcas. But it was not just fishermen.

Research on marine mammals in the 1950s focused on northern fur seals, and the knowledge biologists gained was used to make the commercial seal harvest more profitable. Next to overseeing the slaughter of seals, scientists had no qualms harpooning orcas to examine their stomach contents to see if fur seal was on their menu. The Coast Guard and US Navy, meanwhile, regularly supported the fishing industry by slaughtering orcas using machine guns, rockets, and – holy shit – depth charges!

Against this background, Colby introduces one of the book’s main protagonists: Ted Griffin. Fascinated by marine life, he was not convinced of the orca’s fearsome reputation. Believing putting one on public display might change people’s attitude, he opened up an aquarium in Seattle. But how do you capture an orca and keep it alive? Spurred on by the capture of an orca named Moby Doll (see The Killer Whale Who Changed the World), he ultimately succeeded in 1965. Nicknamed Namu, the captive orca drew enormous crowds and was widely featured in the media but died only a year later. Griffin was devastated, having bonded with the animal by caring for it, feeding it, and even swimming with it. Unfortunately, he steeled himself and became more distant and business-oriented as a result.

“[…] the Coast Guard and US Navy regularly supported the fishing industry by slaughtering orcas using machine guns, rockets, and – holy shit – depth charges!”

It proved to be a watershed moment, birthing a new industry of aquaria and marine theme parks – first in the USA, then in Europe and Asia. This fueled a demand for orcas and Griffin was closely involved in capturing more of them. He was not the only one, and Colby introduces a large cast of people (including his own father) who became involved over the ensuing decades: competing aquarium entrepreneurs, fishermen, orca trainers, and scientists. I would have liked a timeline or tabular overview of all the key players, as it becomes hard to keep track of all their names. Many of these people are still alive today, and Colby has gone to great lengths to interview them for this book, and to delve into archives and official records.

Griffin was right about one thing: public opinion shifted dramatically. Millions of people saw captive orcas up close, and for many the experience was transformative. In just a decade, orcas went from feared predators to beloved icons. The capture of orcas, which often attracted large crowds, also started to unsettle many. Orcas form tight family bonds and can vocalise. Their cries when being separated have come to haunt many. Scientists, meanwhile, had the opportunity to study living orcas up close and learned much about their intense social nature (see The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins for an up-to-date overview). In combination, this caused public opinion to shift dramatically again, leading to an outcry against the very institutes that had first introduced people to these marine mammals.

Interestingly, my impression from reading the book is that public outcry was initially limited to capture, not captivity. In response, legislation sought, rather hypocritically, to move this activity away from areas frequented by leisure craft. Continued pressure from, amongst others, Greenpeace led to more and wider restrictions and ultimately the drawing up of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Greenpeace’s involvement is notable, as former orca trainer Paul Spong heavily influenced their formative years.)

“[…] cetaceans suffer in captivity, and Orca contains harrowing descriptions of accidents both during capture and transportation, but also once orcas had been moved into their pens at theme parks”

As Casey highlighted in Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins, cetaceans suffer in captivity, and Orca contains harrowing descriptions of accidents, some fatal, both during capture and transportation, but also once orcas had been moved into their pens at aquaria. As this often happened out of sight of the public, it seems that criticism of the practice of keeping cetaceans only arose later. Notably, several former trainers have become vocal opponents (see Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, Flipper trainer Richard O’Barry’s Behind the Dolphin Smile: One Man’s Campaign to Protect the World’s Dolphins, and, of course, the documentary Blackfish).

With Orca, Colby convincingly shows that aquaria have been instrumental in shifting people’s perception of cetaceans. This troubled legacy leaves us with uncomfortable questions that apply to zoos in general. To quote Sir David Attenborough: “no one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. But at what price? SeaWorld and others are of course quick to trot out this argument, but does this justify their continued existence? (My impression is that Colby certainly did not write this book to argue this.) Surely, with our awareness now raised, is it not time we moved on?

“Colby convincingly shows that aquaria have been instrumental in shifting people’s perception of cetaceans […] but does this justify their continued existence?”

Colby refrains from advocacy or judgement in this book, acting solely as a historian. What he does mention is that alternatives such as whale-watching tours, and wildlife safaris in general, have their own negative impacts on animals. Similarly, releasing captive orcas back in the wild is rarely successful, the most infamous example being Keiko, the orca starring in the blockbuster movie Free Willy, who died not long after release.

The trade in Pacific Northwest orcas has been documented before (see Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales can Teach Us and Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight to End Orca Hunting), but Colby masterfully shows how their story is connected to the rise of the environmental movement. Rather than judging in hindsight, he allows the actors to tell their story, warts and all, showing their conflicted attitudes and behaviours; many wanted the best for the orcas but still chose to make a living off their capture, trade and display. Meticulously researched, this is a nuanced, at times disconcerting history that comes thoroughly recommended.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Orca paperback, hardback, ebook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:



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