Gil Hewlett joined the Vancouver Aquarium as the resident biologist in 1964. He has helped train many of the Aquarium's whales, including Skana and Hyak. Gil retired from the position of Assistant Director of Special Projects in March, 2006 after more than 40 years with the Aquarium. Gil has made significant contributions to the Aquarium's legacy of education, research and conservation devoted to the West Coast Killer Whales. With Daniel Francis he co-authored Operation Orca (Harbour Publishing, 2007).

[BCBW 2007] "Whales"

Operation Orca

from Grant Shilling
Whales have become emblematic of B.C. To capitalize on the deep emotional connection British Columbians feel for whales, and particularly Orcas, a corporation called Orca Bay opted for a whale motif as their Vancouver Canucks logo, in the form of a snarling ‘C’ for their hockey jersey, to inspire loyalty and sales.

Whereas a few decades ago it was official government policy to shoot killer whales on sight, nowadays hundreds of people can be mobilized to rescue a single mammal. That transformation of our perception of whales from vicious predators to gentle emissaries of the marine environment is the subject for Daniel Francis and Gil Hewlett’s Operation Orca (Harbour $34.95), an examination of the rescue and return of two Orca whales in the context of our evolving ideas about the largest member of the dolphin family.

Co-authors Francis and biologist Hewlett, who joined the Vancouver Aquarium as a resident biologist in 1964, use the words Orca and Killer whale interchangeably as they recall the fates of Springer, a calf left on its own in Puget Sound off the Washington coast in 2002, and Luna, another lone Orca that showed up in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

In the 1960s, such troublesome whales most likely would have been shot or else captured to spend the rest of their lives in an aquarium. Most fisherman of that era hated killer whales, considering them rivals for the precious salmon on which they also depended for a living.

(At one point in the early ‘60s, fishermen convinced the government to install a Browning machine gun on a lookout on Quadra Island near Campbell River but that gun was never used due to fears that a human might be killed.)

It was the accidental capture in 1964 of a whale dubbed Moby Doll that began to change our attitudes about whales. After Moby Doll was towed “like a dog on a leash” from Saturna Island, where it had been harpooned, it was given haven in a drydock at Burrard Inlet.

When the doors of Burrard Drydock were opened to the public, twenty thousand people showed up to view the whale. For the first time people had a chance to get closer to a killer whale. Instead of a fearsome man-eating predator, they discovered an amiable creature that was endearing and apparently smart.

Moby Doll died of a lung infection three months after its capture, but the ‘gold rush’ for Orcas was on. Major aquariums—which to that point had not housed a whale—began to pay handsomely for them. In 1967, Murray Newman, after much debate with the board of directors for the Vancouver Aquarium, bought that facility’s first resident whale, eventually dubbed Skana, for $22,000. Undeniably the presence of Skana created new possibilities for scientific research.

By 1973, more than a dozen aquariums had purchased killer whales from the coastal waters of BC and Washington State, so researchers and members of the public began to wonder how many killer whales were on the coast. A ‘whale census’ in 1971 produced shocking results: there were only between 200 and 350 Orcas left.

This census led to the banning of the capture of killer whales in 1976. Operation Orca affirms that if live capture had not ceased, the southern resident populations likely would have been wiped out.

It is against this backdrop that we flash forward 25 years to the ‘rescue’ of Springer, a young female found in Puget Sound mysteriously on its own in 2002. After much debate among the public and scientific community, it was decided that Springer should rejoin her pod in the Johnstone Strait.

Francis and Hewlett engagingly detail Springer’s epic journey and the eclectic skills and backgrounds of the workers who came to her rescue. The logistics of transporting a whale were daunting. Rescuers also didn’t know how the whale would be received by her pod upon her return—as an intruder or as a prodigal child?

When Springer was returned to Kwakwaka’wakw waters her people were there to greet her—as well as her family. The whale’s ability to live in two worlds—breathing air yet living under the water—was one of the reasons why the killer whale was so respected by the Kwakwaka’wakw people in the Johnstone Strait area. The return of the killer whales each summer signified the return of the salmon and the renewal of the life cycle. In mythic terms, they were retuning to the people who they had created.

Springer remains with her pod today. In the words of whale rescuer Lance Barrett-Leonard, “We’d repatriated a whale, a First Nations icon as well as an icon of a different kind to people around the globe…”

While Springer was making her historic journey, another lone orca dubbed Luna showed up in Nootka Sound. Concerns were raised due to Luna’s propensity for playing with boats. Amid concerns he would come to harm, another rescue was planned to return him to his family, but the plan fell apart due to a conflict between local First Nations government and various levels of government.

As widely reported on the evening news, a large tugboat, the General Jackson, killed Luna in 2006. “Many people who had been involved in the attempts to rescue Luna were angry at his death,” write Francis and Hewlett, “For them, the failure to ‘save’ this one whale was symptomatic of a larger failure of community and humanity. They thought that Luna died because the interested parties had not been able to put aside their personal agendas to work for the good of the animal.”

But the glass is half full, not half empty. In the summer of 2007, some of the people involved in the Springer operation held a reunion in Johnstone Strait, and who should show up but the guest of honour herself, Springer, accompanied by her Orca ‘aunt’ Yakat.

“Springer’s relocation,” write Francis and Hewlett, “represented the first time that a wild whale had ever been captured, transported back to its home range and successfully released. It was the most ambitious animal rescue effort ever mounted on the Pacific Coast.”

ISBN 10: 1-55017-426-6
ISBN 13: 978-1-55017-426-7