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Orca: The Whale Called Killer


by Erich Hoyt


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Excerpt from “The Sonic Creature”


It was sunny the afternoon we sailed into Alert Bay's harbor. The light filtered through the tall trees of the island and bounced off the 1 1/2 story wood frame houses and stores that line the single main street. We fought our way through stiff tides and traffic to approach the dock. As we drew closer, I saw the famous Kwakiutl totem poles, which have brought visitors to the island since before the turn of the century. Ethnographer Franz Boas, who arrived in 1886, made the Kwakiutls well known through his many papers and books. In 1893, he took a group of Kwakiutls to the Chicago World's Fair. Then, beginning in 1910, photographer Edward S. Curtis spent four seasons with the Kwakiutls, devoting the largest volume in his 20 volume series on the American Indian to them and making the world's first feature length ethnographic film.

Alert Bay of the 1970s bore little resemblance to the village shown in the turn of the century photographs and films of Boas and Curtis. The best totems were taken long ago by museums. The few dozen that remain are rotting and faded or over-painted in gaudy greens and yellows on a glossy white base bright colours not used by the early natives. Some stand in the front yards of houses along Fir Street. Two matching beakless eagles perched atop grizzly bears flank the old Indian Industrial School, a massive brick fortress covered in peeling white paint. Most of the remaining poles stand guard over the Nimpkish Cemetery, the tallest now dwarfed by the Shell Oil towers on the hill behind them. But there are a few new poles in the cemetery. Alone among all the Northwest Coast Indians, the Kwakiutls have kept alive the carving tradition. Today, there is a full scale revival in progress.

We were met at the dock by Paul Spong, a psychologist who had worked with killer whales at the Vancouver Aquarium. He offered us a grand tour of the village while we shopped. 'Then we'll go for a beer, ''he said, "and I'll show you the social life."

We walked along a narrow street that had no sidewalk, sidestepping cars, people and the occasional mud puddle. First, we checked out "the bay," the Kwakintl reserve built around the heart of the harbour in the oldest part of town. Here were typical Canadian wood frame houses dating from 1920 to 1950; the imposing Indian Industrial School erected in 1929 to house more than 200 school age children; and Christ Church, built in 1881, where services are still conducted in the Kwakiutl language.

Climbing the hill to a grassy field behind the homes, we saw the massive Big House, which was built in 1967 in the old native style with fitted cedar beams. It is the place for winter native dances and for native social gatherings, called potlatches.

As we toured, Spong pointed to Kwakiutl killer whale designs carved on totems and painted on cars, trucks, house fronts and business signs. Seaplanes of the Alert Bay Air Services are decorated with bold black orcas on a yellow background. Most are primitive two dimensional representations of orca, some with two dorsal fins or a man riding on the back, others showing a salmon or a seal in the stomach. Many designs are almost abstract.

''You can tell the Kwakiutl killer whale by the interlocking teeth and the obvious dorsal fin,'' said Spong. The Chamber of Commerce has mounted a large placard of a Kwakiutl killer whale on a prominent dockside building to attract visitors aboard Alaska bound cruise ships. When I asked about it, Spong laughed. "Actually, the whales avoid Alert Bay because the harbour is polluted and too busy most of the time.'' Nonetheless, Alert Bay is one of the few places in the world where, in the summer months, a visitor can charter a boat for a day and count on seeing killer whales.

Spong waved to a young Kwakiutl man carving cedar howls on a beach log near the road; the carver was wearing an Alert Bay "Home of the Killer Whale" t shirt that barely covered his paunch. Beyond him, three near naked children waded into the cold harbour, their dark forms silhouetted against the sparkling highlights off the water. The natives appear unfriendly at first meeting; some resent whites. But more, I found, were only shy and sometimes self- effacing. Some became my friends, although it took time. "It's not always this quiet," said Spong, as we continued on our way. "When the fishermen return, Alert Bay becomes a real party town. Everyone hits the beer parlours the Harbour Inn or the Nimpkish for a three day binge."
In the Nimpkish Hotel beer parlour, we sat next to picture windows overlooking the harbour. "This place is like a Wild West saloon sometimes," said Spong, "but she's like a ghost town in here today. We'll be able to talk, mate." Spong calls everyone mate. His New Zealand accent is still evident, although the 34 year old physiological psychologist left the country of his birth more than a decade ago. In 1967, Spong was hired by the University of British Columbia to study the sensory system of killer whales at the Vancouver Aquarium.

"I approached the whales as a clinical experimental psychologist," said Spong, "getting them to do things as if they were no more than laboratory rats." He and co researcher Don White first measured orca's visual acuity. They found that a young male named Hyak could see about as well underwater as a cat could in air. They tested a young Pacific white sided dolphin and obtained similar results. "Cetacea's use of vision is probably very specialized," Spong theorized, referring to his 1969 report written together with White. "In the wild, orca probably uses his eyes only to orient himself above water and when auditory information is not enough underwater. Living in the ocean, these social mammals use sound to navigate, find their food and stay in touch with each other. It's a very complex and varied world of sound. And we put them in concrete pools where the isolation and reverberations from their own voices tend to silence them."

At the Vancouver Aquarium, Spong began to play sounds to individual whales. From the beginning of his studies, he had discovered that food as motivation was not always enough. A hungry whale might withhold a response as determinedly as a satiated animal. "So we decided to reward Hyak with three minutes of music every time he swam or vocalized," said Spong. ''We used one tone at a frequency of 5 kHz to signal 'trial onset' for the swimming and another tone, 500 Hz, for the vocalizing."

Hyak began to swim more every day, but Spong and White still had problems getting him to vocalize. After nine months of isolation, his vocalizations had become rare. "We tried playing a tape recording of his own sounds. No response. Then we tried recordings from another whale. Immediately, Ilyak began to vocalize. After that, we had no problems shaping vocal responses to the 500 Hz signal. Yet Hyak got bored very quickly, and we found this held true for Skana and other captive orcas." Spong drained the last of his beer. "It was far out, mate. We had to keep changing the tunes to keep him swimming and vocalizing."

Spong's attitude toward the whales began changing in early 1969. "For more than a year, I'd been working with Skana at the Vancouver Aquarium, but we were just getting to know each other and share physical contact. Skana enjoyed having me rub her head and body with my hands and my bare feet.'

Spong ordered another round of beer. "Early one morning, I was sitting at the edge of Skana 'spool, my hare feet in the water. She approached slowly, until she was only a few inches away. Then, suddenly, she opened her mouth and dragged her teeth quickly across both the tops and the soles of my feet. I jerked my feet out of the water!

"I thought about it for a minute and, recovering from the shock, put my feet back in. Again, Skana approached, baring her teeth. Again, I jerked my feet out.

"We did this routine 10 or 11 times until, finally, I sat with my feet in the water and controlled the urge to flinch when she flashed her teeth I no longer felt afraid. She had deconditioned my fear of her. And when I stopped reacting she ended the exercise."

It was about then that Spong began to think the whales were conducting experiments on him at the same time as he was on them. "Eventually, my respect for orcas verged on awe," Spong wrote later. "I concluded that the orca is an incredibly powerful and capable creative, exquisitely self controlled and aware of the world around it, a being possessed of a zest for life and a healthy sense of humour and, moreover, a remarkable fondness for and interest in humans."
In 1970, Spong decided to investigate the creatures in their natural habitat. He brought his family to Alert Bay, went out by boat to look for the whales and found them. He started coming up every summer. In contrast to the free orcas, he said, Skana seemed lonely and bored, and her pool looked small. Every time Spong returned to Vancouver, he visited Skana and talked with Vancouver Aquarium director Murray Newman about obtaining the whale's release.

The aquarium's position was that releasing Skana after so many years in captivity (since 1967) would be irresponsible because the whale might die without her pod. If she could find her pod, went the argument, would she even be accepted? Asked whether Skana could survive, Ellis said that he believed an ex captive would have no trouble catching ling cod, at minimum. "It might take her a week or two to adjust, but she could go for a long time on the fat she's got on her." Spong suggested a gradual release programme, staying with Skana until she readjusted to the wild. But both Ellis and Spong admit that it is unlikely that any aquarium will consent to free its relatively rare and costly killer whales. More than any other exhibit, the orcas attract the paying customers.

By the time I met Spong in Alert Bay in 1973, he had become an outspoken advocate for the rights of all whales and was dropping his scientific pursuits to campaign full time to save them.



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