Since the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, millions around the world have focused on the plight of the orca, the most profitable and controversial display animal in history. Yet until now, no historical account has explained how we came to care about killer whales in the first place. In celebration of Orca Awareness Month, environmental professor Jason M. Colby draws on interviews, official records, private archives, and his own family history, to tell the exhilarating and heartbreaking story of how the public came to love the ocean’s greatest predator.
Colby delves into oceanic history to reveal the origins of the orca. Historically reviled as dangerous pests, killer whales were dying by the hundreds, even thousands, by the 1950s—the victims of whalers, fishermen, and even the US military. But that all changed in 1965, when Seattle entrepreneur Ted Griffin became the first person to swim and perform with a captive killer whale. Colby traces the trajectory of the orca’s image, revealing factors that led the public to embrace killer whales as charismatic and friendly. He explores encounters with captive orcas reshaped regional values in the Pacific Northwest, and helped drive environmental activism like Greenpeace’s anti-whaling campaigns. Join Colby for a definitive history of the feared and despised “killer whale,” and how its transformation into the beloved regional icon of the “orca” has impacted our relationship with the ocean and its creatures.
Jason M. Colby is associate professor of environmental and international history at the University of Victoria. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, and raised in the Seattle area, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and Washington State. He is the author of The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and US Expansion in Central America.
Presented by Town Hall Seattle as part of the Science series.