Haida and Chimo in captivity at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria in 1972. Chimo had a rare genetic condition that made her white. ( John F. Colby)

From killer to orca: Uvic professor writes on society’s changing relationship with whales

Jason Colby speaks to the history of orcas, who were still live captured just decades ago

Demons of the Netherworld. Assassin whale. Killer whale. Orca.

The names for the whale have shifted over the years, but more interestingly, so too have the feelings around them.

This is the focus of University of Victoria associate professor Jason Colby’s book, Orca: how we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator.

Orcas have long been seen as fearsome predators; their Latin name Orcinus Orca, roughly translates to demon of the Netherworld, and ‘killer whale’ was derived from a Spanish observation of the mammals hunting other whales.

VIDEO: Whale plays with boat’s anchor line at Vancouver Island marina

“Orca has a warm fuzzy feeling, and we think of it as a modern term, but it’s just as old as the killer whale,” Colby said. “It expresses how many people, even in the Pacific Northwest thought of them … Of why fishermen shot them, or why federal scientists shot and dissected them to see if they’re eating valuable resources.

“Orca became redefined, imbued with meaning that this is not the threatening, potentially killing animal.”

Colby argues that this cultural movement of seeing orcas as an iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest was spurred by human exposure to live whales, something that is entrenched in his family’s history.

“My dad in the ‘70s was involved in live captures on both sides of the States. I grew up with that history with my dad and the knowledge which increasingly started haunting him,” Colby said. “But in an era of actions we very understandably regret and think of as deplorable … they are why we came to have a very different relationship with them.”

ALSO READ: Sick orca J50 declared dead

The live capture of whales allowed people to study the behaviour of whales for the first time and to understand how they hunted, learned and bonded.

A large portion of Colby’s book focuses on Ted Griffin, the man famous for getting in a pool with Namu and forming a relationship with him. Of course, Griffin was also involved in capturing and selling whales.

“Even people we consider having done things that we’d find deplorable don’t have horns on their heads, it was in the context of the times,” Colby argued. “Live capture activity did damage, but it helped re-frame our view.”

Colby’s book was released in June 2018, shortly before the heartbreaking observation of southern resident killer whale, J35, carrying her dead calf for 17 days, or the untimely death of J50 from starvation.

READ MORE: Orca’s ‘tour of grief’ over after carrying dead calf around for nearly 3 weeks

The change in attitude brings more awareness to the plight of the species, something that Colby hopes spurs life-saving action before it’s too late.

“It was a really extraordinary summer for people across the world,” Colby said. “If ever there was a symbolic moment, that was it.”

Colby will be presenting on his book for the Victoria Historical Society on Nov. 22 at the James Bay New Horizons at 234 Menzies St. The talk runs from 7:15 p.m. until 9:00 p.m.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com


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Jason Colby is an associate professor of environmental and international history at the University of Victoria. His new book, Orca: how we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator, explores the changing relationship people have had with orcas. (Jason Colby)

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