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A Remarkable History Of Killer Whale Research At The Aquarium

Since its opening in 1956, the Vancouver Aquarium has had a strong focus on marine research. Initially, most of the research focused on fish, which were housed at the Aquarium. Animals that couldn't be kept were displayed in model form.

Moby Doll Arriving

Moby Doll Model

The Day Moby Doll Arrived

In 1964, the Aquarium commissioned Samuel Burich, a sculptor and commercial fisherman, to make a life-size model of a killer whale.

Bulrich and another fisherman harpooned a whale, but it didn't die. Murray A. Newman, the Aquarium's first director, instructed them to bring the whale back to Vancouver alive. The whale, named Moby Doll, passively followed the boat and survived in captivity for three months. This event caught the attention of people all around the world, and attitudes towards killer whales slowly began to change.

No Longer A Fearsome Predator

Fisheries managers believed that killer whales were vicious predators that needed to be culled. To this end, a Browning fifty-caliber machine gun was mounted at Seymour Narrows. But Moby Doll (who turned out to be a male) was docile, even friendly. He showed us that killer whales could be housed safely and were easily trained. Before long, aquariums around the world were clamoring for them. The machine gun to cull killer whales was quietly removed before ever being used!

Killer Whale Show
Two Killer Whales

Surprising Bonds

In 1965, a pair of fishermen accidentally caught two killer whales and held on to them, expecting to get rich. The younger whale escaped while the Seattle Aquarium immediately bought the mature bull. Remarkably, up to 40 whales remained near the whale's pen until he was taken away. In particular, a large cow and two calves stayed within several feet of the bull. At the time, no one imagined that whales were capable of developing such strong bonds.

The Psychology Of Whales

The Vancouver Aquarium purchased Skana in 1967 and then acquired Hyak, who was Skana's companion until her death in 1980.

Dr. Paul Spong, a psychologist who came to Vancouver to work with the Aquarium's two Pacific white-sided dolphins, applied his research tests to Skana. He did basic cognitive studies in vision and perception that quickly yielded an understanding of how the animals see and how quickly they learn.

Killer Whale and Trainer
Fishy Snack Reward

Whales Enjoying
Classical Music

Skana proved to be an incredibly good student, performing certain behaviours for fishy rewards. One day, Skana began to consistently do the opposite of what the researchers expected, leading Dr. Spong to introduce sound through an underwater speaker as an alternative stimulus. Skana's favourable reaction encouraged further experimentation in killer whale acoustics. Classical music produced astonishing results: Skana began to race around the pool and performed leaps out of the water.

No More Wild Whale Capture

Shortly after this, our understanding of wild populations of killer whales changed radically. It was believed that thousands of killer whales lived off the shores of British Columbia, but a census taken in the early seventies showed populations were alarming low at around 300. This realization led to the banning of capturing wild whales for display in aquaria.

Killer Whale Show
Killer Whale Pod Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard

When One Became Two

Up until this time, people believed that there was just one type of killer whale. Differences observed in fin shape and travel patterns led researchers to speculate that there were two distinct types of killer whales that share the same habitat but differed radically in diet, behaviour, sounds and social system. This idea encountered skepticism for many years, but eventually proved to be accurate as transient and resident killer whales were identified.

Discovery, Identification And Social Structure

The idea that killer whales could be reliably identified as individuals from photographs and had a complex social organization was debated for years. In 1975, researchers identified the matriline structure within wild killer whale groups (where killer whale offspring remain with their mothers for life). These matrilines tend to associate together in a pod, where each pod uses different vocal calls or 'dialects.'

Wild Killer Whale Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard
Killer Whale Breaching Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard

Ongoing Research And Conservation

Despite the fact that there are no longer killer whales at our Aquarium, UBC graduate students continue to work closely with researchers here on innovative studies in morphology, acoustics and predation in wild killer whale populations. We've also taken our understanding of social structure and culture in killer whales to the next level by incorporating genetic studies.
Learn more about our cetacean research

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