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Neighbours for a Century: What Did Whale Watching Look Like in 1915?

November 25, 2015

“The long and the short of it is that it didn’t exist, at least not in the sense that it does today.”

That’s Sheenah Duclos, one of the Head Naturalists at Orca Spirit. For professionals such as Sheenah as well as amateur whale watching enthusiasts (and orca whale bloggers), watching orcas, greys and humpbacks, not to mention the sea lion and seal communities living in the waters between Vancouver and Victoria, it’s natural to ponder thoughts of the animals’ history.

A history that hasn’t always been pretty.

Aquariums at Their Height

You don’t actually have to go back to 1915 to find examples of this oft-strained relationship between human beings and orca whales. At the tail end of the 20th century, aquariums and captivity once captured the hearts and minds of people young and old fascinated by killer whales and their fierce legends. This blog is obviously supportive of watching wild whales in their natural habitat, but for years watching orcas in captivity was widely accepted as educational and humane.

The problem was the orcas didn’t see it that way and we didn’t know how to ask them for their opinion. Maybe it was because we weren’t aware of the truth depth of their intelligence, or maybe we didn’t stop to think that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

But as aquariums were attracting attention both positive and negative in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, marine biology was learning more about these animals and how to peacefully coexist in a region unbound by glass walls and concrete tanks.

These days the wild habitat of the orca is respected by mankind, but again, we need to go back even further to learn more about a time when man and beast clashed as enemies on a battlefield.

Whale Watching Whale Hunters of the Pacific Northwest

The fierce legends mentioned above, where did they come from?

What seems like an abomination today was once an accepted course of action upon which humankind’s survival was dependant. Imagine explorers of the region we now call home discovering gigantic groups of powerful, sleek black missiles silently lurking beneath the ocean’s surface one hundred years ago.

There were no hydrophones, no radar and no naturalists to tell the story of a highly intelligent species that will do anything to protect its family.

All these explorers would have seen is a sadistic beast that’s content to torment helpless seals before they’re devoured.

Plus, orcas weren’t the only game in town. The Fin Whale frequented the waters of the pacific northwest 100 years as well. Imagine witnessing an animal being driven out of its territory by a creature a third its size. For pioneering explorers of the early 20th century, orca whales were the undisputed king of the ocean, a reigning champion of the food chain patrolling the fish-rich waters craved by a growing influx of human beings.

And from the perspective of the orca, there was only one lens through which the human fishermen could be seen.


Coexistence & Respect

Let’s jump back to 2015. Conflicts with orcas in the wild are almost obsolete, aquariums are dwindling in popularity and what we know about these animals is growing with every turn of migration season.

Our history with orcas is dotted with conflict born of ignorance. We arrived on their turf and conflict ensued. We kidnapped them from their turf and conflict ensued, except this time it occurred on our turf.

We’re learning. Today we understand this is an animal that worries about feeding its family above all else. The orca understands that silently floating human beings out on the open ocean aren’t a threat, but a guest.

And the sad fact is that this hasn’t always been the case.



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