Saturna Island Moby Doll Whale Symposium

Saturna Island, Moby Doll Symposium
A story of Moby Doll, and what we’ve learned from this incredible whale.

I was fortunate enough to spend the past few days on Saturna Island in B.C’s Gulf Islands, with a fascinating array of people who care passionately about whales and the marine environment. From internationally renowned researchers spanning three generations of whale research and conservationists from both sides of the international border, to locals and islanders who have grown up with the whales in their own backyard, and children, who we all hope will grow up continuing to have whales in their back yard.

This wasn’t so much a symposium about whales but instead a history, some times celebratory and some times sad, of whales and people.

The poignant theme throughout the day was the story of Moby Doll and his family.   

In 1964, Moby Doll, a young killer whale, was harpooned off East Bluffs, Saturna Island. The harpoon injured Moby Doll, but not fatally.  Dr. Murray Newman, the then director of the Vancouver Aquarium decided to keep Moby Doll alive and move him to the aquarium, he was towed, using the harpoon line across the Strait of Georgia and to the boat yard in North Vancouver. Thankfully, times have changed.

From his first days in captivity he showed a remarkable ability to connect with people.  Dr. Newman showed old photos of the men who had so feared him at the time of his capture, sitting quietly and playing harmonica to keep him company.  There was a public competition to name him (he was wrongly identified as a female, instead of a young male, because of the small dorsal fin).

The whale became an icon, garnering world media attention and in doing so he changed public beliefs and attitudes for all generations to come. Little was known about caring for whales back then. Unfortunately, after 87 days in captivity Moby Doll died. After less than three months in the spotlight he was given a two column obituary in The Times of London, the same amount of space as the start of WW2.

The personal connections to Moby Doll ran deep at the Symposium.  As a boy, Dr. John Ford visited Moby Doll.  Later, as a student he listened to a recoding of Moby vocalizing, memorizing each click, whistle and buzz that the whale made. You can watch a video clip of Moby Doll's vocalizations that Dr. Ford played on our facebook page


After listening to Moby Doll, Dr. Ford went on to the study the vocalization of other whales.  He began listening to ‘J-Pod’, a tightly bonded family unit of Southern Resident killer whales that live in the Southern Strait of Georgia.  He recorded Granny, J-Pod’s matriarch (now 90-something years old) and her children and grandchildren.  Immediately he recognised their clicks, whistles and buzzes.

They were Moby Doll’s family.

The scientific study of killer whales has allowed us to learn a great deal about j-pod and other resident killer whales, who live their entire lives in and around the coastal waters of Vancouver Island. 

So what do we know?

We know that different families have different dialects, which is how we know that Moby belonged to J-Pod.  These dialects are very important for social bonding between animals and are used to recognise other whales and determine how closely related they are. We know that the loss of one or two whales can affect the pod very badly.

We also know that the residents love salmon, especially Chinook salmon, and we know that a steep decline in the population between the mid 1990s and early 2000s coincides very closely with a steep decline in Chinook. Killer whales are entirely dependent on their ocean habitat and the salmon run. We know that no salmon means no killer whales. 

This is only one example from the Symposium of the incredible connections between killer whales and their environment.  Each speaker talked about a different connection, from hunting to culture to pollution. It became very clear that in order to protect these magnificent, intelligent, complicated, and ‘even cultured’ whales we need to protect their environment, the Southern Strait of Georgia.

(Oh and my other highlight were these AMAZING cucumber orca table decorations... how cute are they?!!)