The Royal BC Museum exhibit begins by pulling visitors underwater, immersing them in the orca’s world. (Photo: Shane Lighter/Royal BC Museum)

Royal BC Museum exhibit dives into the world of orcas

Deep inside the belly of the Royal BC Museum’s much-anticipated new exhibit, Orcas: Our Shared Future, hangs a full-size whale skeleton: Rhapsody, also known as J32, from the Southern Resident Orcas. The skeleton looks as you might expect — a long graceful spine and full ribcage — except for two tiny splints of bone hanging underneath. They’re not connected to the rest of the skeleton, and don’t seem to fit with the rest of the whale’s shape.

It’s a pelvis, left over from when whale ancestors used to walk on land.

“The splints don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know from the fossil record,” says Dr. Gavin Hanke, Curator of Vertabrate Zoology for the Royal BC Museum. “Fossils show a pretty good continuum of animals with legs, to fully aquatic whales with reduced hind limbs, to nearly modern whales with no external legs.”

Many Indigenous nations along the west coast remember, through their oral histories, when whales walked on land, and the science has finally caught up. Orcas aren’t as different from humans as colonial cultures may have thought. Does that knowledge change how we treat them, and their habitat?

“All coastal nations have histories and connections with orcas. This is evident in the artworks created over a millennia,” says Lou-ann Neel, Curator of Indigenous Collections and Repatriation at the Royal BC Museum. (Photo: Amy Attas)

“All coastal nations have histories and connections with orcas. This is evident in the artworks created over a millennia,” says Lou-ann Neel, Curator of Indigenous Collections and Repatriation at the Royal BC Museum. (Photo: Amy Attas)

Are orcas property? Family?

The Royal BC Museum exhibit begins by pulling visitors underwater, immersing them in the orca’s world. Life-size models swim past screens projecting ocean sights and sounds. They’re much bigger than expected. Dr. Hanke says the three models – Slick (J15), Scarlet (J50) and Ruffles (J1) – are true-to-size based on measurements from drone footage.

“I asked a colleague how big to make Ruffles, and he said, make him big. Add some more. Then when you think it is ridiculously large, add a bit more. But to fit Ruffles in the gallery, we went with the lower-end estimate from drone footage (6.8 meters). He probably was 7.2 meters or larger.”

The models of these orcas are accompanied by distinctly human biographies — even their names emphasize their humanity, and demonstrate our long fascination. Scarlet was a breech birth, born tail first. Other orcas gently used their teeth to pull her from her mother, Slick, and her skin was permanently scarred by the sharp teeth of the orca midwives. Rhapsody, the skeleton, died with a baby orca inside her womb — an infection from the miscarriage likely killed her.

VIDEO: Rarely seen orca known as ‘Chainsaw’ spotted off Victoria’s coast

Orcas live in close-knit pods made up of mothers and their children, each with a separate language, territory and habits. Their daily routine is similar to ours, a mix of relaxation, travel, socializing and foraging. Many Indigenous cultures along the west coast have considered Killer Whales family for centuries.

“All coastal nations have histories and connections with orcas. This is evident in the artworks created over a millennia,” says Lou-ann Neel, Curator of Indigenous Collections and Repatriation at the Royal BC Museum. “These histories (often dubbed ‘legends’ or ‘stories’ or ‘myths’) come from each family group in each Nation, so each history is unique and shares a different teaching. As such, there aren’t really any common or generalized stories that can be attributed across these Nations, which is why it is always important to check with the Nation and particular families from which a given history is told.”

The exhibit tells visitors a number of these histories through carving, weaving, animation and other arts. In many, supernatural Killer Whales bring people into their underwater towns and then return them home. The line between humans and other creatures seems increasingly blurred.

Visitors explore the biology section of the new Royal BC Museum orca exhibit. (Photo: Shane Lighter/Royal BC Museum)

Visitors explore the biology section of the new Royal BC Museum orca exhibit. (Photo: Shane Lighter/Royal BC Museum)

The exhibit closes with a look at orcas in popular culture — from the Vancouver Canucks logo to Shamu, Free Willy and Black Fish. Colonial cultures may have been slow to clue-in to the significance of orcas at first, but they’re clearly captivating the whole world now.

Will it change how we treat them, and the waters where they live?

To buy tickets and learn more about the exhibit, visit royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.

Plan your adventures throughout the West Coast at westcoasttraveller.com and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @thewestcoasttraveller. And for the top West Coast Travel stories of the week delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Armchair Traveller newsletter!

FURTHER READING: Researchers confirm new southern resident orca calf

British ColumbiaCanadaConservationOrcaSouthern Resident Killer WhalesThings to dowct-introWildlife

Just Posted

Greater Victoria is ranked fourth out of 27 Canadian cities for the best places for youth to work in, according to a RBC report. (Black Press Media file photo)
Greater Victoria among best Canadian cities for youth to work in, says RBC report

Region ranked fourth out of 27, behind Vancouver, Hamilton and Edmonton

Donna Brower (left) and her daughter Carol Anne Penner, members of the Silver Swans – a quilting group of 12 ladies who meet at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary – with a mountain of masks they sewed. (Photo submitted by Julia Dawson)
Saanich quilting group nabs first prize in Volunteer BC photo contest

Silver Swans sewing club raised more than $12,000 for Swan Lake nature sanctuary

Happy green tomato seedlings wait to be purchased at 3378 Wishart Rd. in Colwood. They’ve been grown especially for the Colwood Garden Society’s fundraiser to build a shed at the community garden. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
Colwood Garden Society hopes to raise shed with plant sale

Herbs, vegetable starts, flowers and more for $1, $2 and $3 until May 15

Divyesh Nagarajan, third from the left, has founded the Be My Friend project to bring support and companionship to vulnerable youth and address North Saanich’s food security challenges. (Courtesy of Divyesh Nagarajan)
Greater Victoria teen looks to connect vulnerable youth with a buddy, bolster food security

Be My Friend project was founded by St. Michaels University School student Divyesh Nagarajan

The City of Victoria is proposing a northern contraction from Haultain Street to Bay Street with a western contraction from Cook Street to Chambers Street for Fernwood. (Illustration/Google Maps)
Community association calls for input on Victoria boundary changes

City of Victoria proposes changes to neighbourhood borders

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains in the B.C. legislature, May 13, 2019. (Hansard TV)
VIDEO: B.C. to provide 3 days of sick pay for COVID-19 absences

Province will support employers on cost, labour minister says

A nurse asks screening questions at an immunization appointment in Nanaimo earlier this year. (Shawn Wagar/Island Health photo)
Island Health appreciates nurses answering the call in challenging times

Health authority draws attention to National Nursing Week

BC Housing minister David Eby. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
Eby jabs back against Penticton mayor’s ad urging BC Premier to intervene in shelter dispute

Eby writes that Penticton’s ‘serious’ social issues won’t improve under leadership of the mayor

What3words was first created in the U.K. in 2013 and is credited to saving the lives of outdoor enthusiasts around the world. (Contributed)
‘This is a life saving tool’: App helps paramedics find capsized canoeists near Revelstoke

What3words pinpoints the person’s phone location to a three-meter range

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 rate creeps up again, 600 new cases Wednesday

One more death, 423 people in hospital with virus

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham takes questions in the B.C. legislature in 2017. (Hansard TV)
UPDATE: B.C. will fund another year of fresh fruit, vegetables, milk in schools

John Horgan government working on school meal program

Vancouver mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart addresses supporters in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver mayor says there’s no time to redo details of drug decriminalization plan

Kennedy Stewart says a federal election could see the small window of opportunity close on the city’s bid for an exemption from criminal provisions on simple possession of small amounts of drugs

Premier Mike Horgan received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. (Facebook/John Horgan)
More than 50% of people eligible in B.C. have received 1st vaccine dose

‘We’ve made extraordinary progress together over the past few weeks,’ says Premier Horgan

Most Read