Orcas are the most profitable and controversial display animal in history, and since the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, millions around the world have focused on their plight. Yet no historical account has explored how we came to care about killer whales in the first place.
In Orca, Jason Colby tells the exhilarating and often heartbreaking story of how people came to love the ocean's greatest predator. Historically reviled as dangerous pests, killer whales were dying by the hundreds, even thousands, by the 1950s – the victims of whalers, fishermen, and even the US military. In the Pacific Northwest, fishermen shot them, scientists harpooned them, and the Canadian government mounted a machine gun to eliminate them. But that all changed in 1965, when a Seattle entrepreneur named Ted Griffin became the first person to swim and perform with a captive killer whale. The show was a hit, and he began capturing and selling others, including Sea World's first "Shamu".
Over the following decade, live display transformed popular and scientific views of Orcinus orca. The public embraced killer whales as charismatic and friendly while scientists enjoyed their first access to live orcas. In the Pacific Northwest, these captive encounters reshaped regional values and helped drive environmental activism, including Greenpeace's anti-whaling campaigns. Yet even as Northwesterners taught the world to love whales, they came to oppose their captivity. So when Sea World attempted to catch its own killer whales, Northwesterners would fight for the freedom of a marine predator that had become a regional icon.
With access to previously unavailable documents and interviews, Colby offers the definitive history of how the feared and despised "killer" became the beloved "orca" and what that means for our relationship with the ocean and its creatures.
1. "The Most Terrible Jaws Afloat"
2. The Old Northwest
3. Griffin's Quest
4. Murray Newman and Moby Doll
5. Namu's Journey
6. A Boy and His Whale
7. Fishing for Orcas
8. Skana and the Hippie
9. The Scores at Pender Harbor
10. Supply and Demand
11. The White Whale
12. Penn Cove Roundup
13. Whaling in the New Northwest
14. Big Government and Big Business
15. The Legend of Mike Bigg
16. 17. New Frontiers
18. Haida's Song
19. The Legacy of Capture
Jason Colby is a scholar of environmental and international history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Born in Victoria and raised in the Seattle area, he has spent most of his life in the Salish Sea. In his high school and undergraduate years, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and on fish farms in Puget Sound. His family has close ties to the story of orcas and the Pacific Northwest.
– Honor Book, Caroline Bancroft History Prize
"Detailed, determinedly even-handed and often fascinating."
– Lucy Atkins, Times Literary Supplement
"Jason Colby's Orca [...] left me with feelings of gratitude for his hard work, admiration and envy for his skills as a historian and storyteller, and also some new hopes about the possibilities of writing about animals and history [...] .The characters, human and cetacean, are drawn with extraordinary empathy and care, and their experiences, hopes, and worries, as told by Colby, are powerful [...] The photographs, of which there are more than forty, are both exceptional and thoughtfully curated."
– Nigel Rothfels, Humanimalia
"Timely [...] Over forty oral history interviews, added to substantial archival and secondary research, allow Colby to weave a history that highlights the agency and complexities of orca capture and captivity [...] This engaging book should garner a wide audience of academics and orca enthusiasts. The clear narrative and interesting stories moreover make it suitable for undergraduate courses in both Pacific Northwest history and environmental history"
– Jen Corrinne Brown, American Historical Review
"Colby is an easy and engaging writer [...] He utilizes extensive interviews he conducted with many of the most colorful and important people involved in the story: those who captured whales, the promoters, fishermen, scientists, and the citizens and politicians who became involved in the fight to halt the capture."
– Carmel Finley, Journal of American History
"This is an affecting book, personal and political all at once, and written by a scholar who has worked hard to recover and relay painful tales of the wild orcas that encountered humans and the humans that did the encountering. Nearly all those meetings began in panic and pain, most of it the whales', though some of it that of the men who came to believe they were doing the wrong thing wresting these breathtaking animals from their world, to deliver them to our own, which has been changed by the resulting episodes of captivity and captivation."
– D. Graham Burnett, author of The Sounding of the Whale
"With Orca, Jason Colby takes readers on a riveting journey. In a matter of decades, the Pacific Northwest's killer whales traveled from despised vermin to regional sweethearts. Their emotional passage revealed the true wildcard of wildlife management: navigating the swirling opinions of human populations. A timely book, Orca brings history to bear on a fraught relationship between two apex predators. Colby traces the rise in human affection for the whales but also the emergence of a cruel realization as audiences cheered captives' performances in aquariums across the globe. Love and fandom could kill and maim as efficiently as fear and contempt. In the end, it's unclear whether orcas benefited from the connection they forged with people."
– Jon Coleman, author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America
"Killer whales, or orcas, the apex marine predators, were once widely feared as dangerous vermin and were shot on sight. Yet over the past fifty years, a sea change in attitudes towards this remarkable animal took place, and today the species is a revered and cherished global icon of the wild marine environment. In this compelling book, Jason Colby chronicles this transition in our relationship with the killer whale and tells an enthralling story complete with drama and excitement. It is sure to be an important addition to the libraries of natural historians and whale enthusiasts alike."
– John Ford, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
"Colby shines a light on how little we understand of these magnificent creatures. His book gives a glimpse into a mysterious yet strangely familiar world, brought to life in a story that's tragic, heartbreaking, and finally hopeful."
– Foreword Reviews (starred review)
"A good choice for serious fans of Pacific Northwest and marine history."
"A revealing look at how the human view of orcas has changed [...] Colby persuasively contends that, despite legitimate concerns popularized by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, about the effects of captivity on orcas, the animals avoided extinction because their presence in accessible public venues enabled people to relate to them [...] Colby has produced an originally argued and accessibly jargon-free consideration of a hot-button animal conservation issue."
– Publishers Weekly
"Killer whales, also known as orcas, are idolized, loved, and even revered. Such sentiments, however, have not always been held toward this species, as historian Jason Colby reveals in his new book, Orca [...] Colby does an excellent job of framing these events within the larger environmental movement of the time, as well as placing them within the context of the nationalism that was spreading on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border at the time."
– Robin W. Baird, Science
"[Told] with the depth and passion the topic deserves."
– Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times
"Immersive and dramatic [...] Colby demonstrates the speed at which societal attitudes can also shift the baseline of our expectations. In this age of extinction, with ongoing changes in ocean chemistry and physics, it is the potential for a sea change in public attitude that presents hope."
– Sascha Hooker, Nature
"An exceptional book and a significant contribution to the conservation of killer whales, Orca brings together a wealth of information and tells the stories of the captive whales and the people who pursued, cared for, and studied them – and ultimately fought for their freedom [...] It instantly takes its place as one of the best books ever written about the interactions between killer whales and settler society on the coastlines of B.C. and Washington State. It should be read by every whale enthusiast, naturalist, fishing guide, graduate student, researcher, marine resource manager, and politician on the Pacific coast."
– Anna Hall, Ormsby Review
"It is a story not just of the orca business, but also of the evolution of Americans' relationship to the oceans and marine life-the growth of marine parks parallels the shift from an extractive approach to the ocean, as mainly a source of fish, to a recreational one. It intersects, too, with the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s."
– Rachel Riederer, New Republic
"[Colby] has produced an exhaustive, nuanced, essential account of the captures, unearthing a forgotten bit of Northwest history."
– Nancy Macdonald, Literary Review of Canada
"A riveting behind-the-scenes 'tell all,' told from the perspectives of the individuals that witnessed this important period in our history. This book is a historical account of how an industry formed, nearly destroying the very commodity on which it depended, coupled with an infusion of science that helped us to better understand killer whale life history. Colby retells a tragic yet sobering story of the good and dark sides of the delicate relationship between humans and other sentient beings."
– Eric L. Walters, Journal of Mammalogy
"An exhaustively researched and well-written account."
– Paul Brown, Resurgence & Ecologist
"An engaging but in-depth history [...] Orca is an exciting new offering at the intersection between histories of the display of live cetaceans, which generally focus on the environmental movement and its pushback against keeping captive dolphins and orcas, and histories of the modern commercial whaling industry, which generally focus purely on the harvesting of larger whales [...] .The book is both an intensely local history of the Pacific Northwest in the late twentieth century and also a more global history of human relationships with large predators and animals in captivity. [...] .Colby provides an exhaustive account of changing perceptions of killer whales and how this related to the development of the environmental movement into which they were embedded, all over the span of just a couple of decades."
– Jakobina Arch, Environmental History