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Trying to understand a whale’s point of view

The Killer Whale Who Changed the World by Mark Leiren-Young

The Blackfish Prophecy by Rachel Clark

In the long and storied interactions between humans and whales, our species has by almost every measure assumed the role of villain. From the whaling industry to marine amusement parks, men have killed and brutalized whales. Environmental degradation of the oceans – all of it linked to human activity – has affected whale habitat, food sources and reproductive success.

We humans have smaller brains, of course, but that can only go so far in justifying our actions, which have ranged from apathy to cruelty to greed.

Two new books tackle this problematic treatment of cetaceans by Homo sapiens, especially as it has played out in the Salish Sea.

“The Killer Whale Who Changed the World” is the story of Moby Doll, a young orca that was captured in 1964 off of Saturna Island in British Columbia.

Originally the intent was to kill a whale so it could be used as the model for a sculpture that would be displayed in the Vancouver Aquarium. But the young whale the hunters tried to kill didn’t die, even after he was both harpooned and shot. To the hunters’ astonishment, two other whales came to the wounded whale’s aid, holding him up out of the water so he could breathe. Eventually the hunters chased the bigger whales off and led the whale up the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver.

Victoria journalist/filmmaker Mark Leiren-Young asserts that this whale’s capture first helped people understand that so-called killer whales weren’t the monsters they had been reputed to be. For the three months that Moby Doll survived in captivity, he was docile and sometimes playful. People began to see orcas in a different light.

Leiren-Young addresses subsequent efforts at whale capture – the “blackfish gold rush” throughout the Salish Sea, the infamous Penn Cove roundup, and then the bipartisan interventions of Washington Gov. Dan Evans, U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson and others, ensuring that “the rodeo was over for the orca cowboys – at least in North America.”

The author also devotes a chapter to the generation of whale researchers and activists who came along after Moby Doll’s demise – OrcaLab’s Paul Spong and Greenpeace’s Bob Hunter among them – and mentions recent efforts to advance whale rights and next steps.

It is heart-wrenching to read through all of the misconceptions people had about whales only 50 years ago, and tougher still to realize that orcas and other whales still face significant challenges to their long-term survival.

Also tackling some of these issues is “The Blackfish Prophecy,” a recent work of eco-speculative fiction aimed at Young Adult readers. In this richly imagined story, teens on opposite coasts work together to connect an orca in captivity at a marine amusement park in Florida with his pod back in the Pacific Northwest.

Moscow, Idaho, author Rachel Clark too often resorts to annoying micromanagement of story details, but her focus on young people who plumb their empathy is a refreshing change of pace.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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