The debate around whale and dolphin captivity has reached peak intensity in recent years. In no small part thanks to documentaries like Blackfish and The Cove, the anti-captivity movement has never held a more prominent place in the cultural Zeitgeist.
But how did orca captivity begin? In his new book The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, author Mark Leiren-Young examines the true story of Moby Doll, one of the first orcas ever taken into captivity. Leiren-Young, whose writing often focuses on theatre and satire, was instantly drawn to the story of the orca captured by the Vancouver Aquarium in 1964.
“A million years ago - okay, 1996 - I was interviewing Paul Watson for a story I was writing for Maclean’s about the Vancouver Aquarium,” Leiren-Young explains. “He told me about Moby Doll. The idea that the aquarium had once harpooned a whale blew my mind, and I had to find out more about it.
“I tracked down Murray Newman - the now retired aquarium director who came up with the idea of the hunt for a killer whale - and when I asked why in the world anyone would try to kill a loveable orca, he handed me a book published in 1964 - just before his expedition - that made these creatures I had grown up loving sound like horror movie monsters. The more I learned about Moby, the more I became convinced that this was a real-life science fiction story about first contact with an alien species. I was hooked.”
After years of unsuccessfully pitching the story in “the age of Free Willy”, Leiren-Young eventually began work on a no-budget documentary on Moby Doll, which he says naturally lead to the book.
Leiren-Young describes the writing process for the book as “insane” - a minefield of inaccuracies requiring copious research, interviews and fact-checking.
“If you look up Moby Doll online or read any book or story out there that mentions Moby, I can almost guarantee you will find at least one major inaccuracy,” Leiren-Young says. “The most common myths are that Moby was displayed at the aquarium, usually followed with ‘and the aquarium charged admission to see Moby and made a fortune.’ No, no and no.”
He says the best way to ensure he maintained accuracy in this little-known story was to go to the source, interviewing the original players in this event from over 50 years ago.
“It’s not just folks in their mid-20s who didn’t know this story,” Leiren-Young admits. “The only people who still remember this story are in their 60s and older. That’s why I was determined to get them to share their memories while they were still around to do so. Newman, one of my key players, passed away just a few months ago at age 92.”
Leiren-Young says that his “obsession” with Moby Doll was further fueled by the broader cultural implications of Moby’s story.
“I had a tough time believing it was a coincidence that Moby Doll was displayed in Vancouver and that Vancouver was ground zero for the birth of Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherd and the whole concept of saving the whales. The coolest part of researching this book was confirming that it wasn’t a coincidence. And that’s why I believe Moby Doll changed the world.”
A launch event for Leiren-Young’s book will be held Sept. 28 at 4:30p.m. in the Carol Shields Auditorium in the Millennium Library.