Though on the surface of things, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World (Greystone) is about a single whale who lived (though not for long) in the mid-1960s, Mark Leiren-Young’s fourth book is an astonishingly sharp look at us, the humans in the driver’s seat, and our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world.
In 1964, the director of the Vancouver Aquarium wanted a dead killer whale to use as a model for a life-size replica for the museum. The whale delivered for the purpose survived the harpooning that had felled him. Moby Doll (who was initially misidentified as female) became the first orca to be housed in captivity. He died within a few months, but not before he had transformed the way people regarded his species. Not the killers that lore had pegged them as, but the friendly and gentle orcas we now know them to be.
Author Mark Leiren-Young is a passionate environmentalist and an award-winning journalist. Those two things don’t always balance, though they do here. Somehow Leiren-Young manages to pack his prose with both even impartiality and a real and beautiful pathos. The result is a book that is both moving and enlightening. One finds oneself entranced by the ultimately tragic story of Moby Doll and riveted by the impact of his life and death on the entirety of his species.
Leiren-Young tells his story simply and seemingly without heat. The mid-1960s. Vancouver. And first close glimpses at a species so alien that, to many, they might as well have been from space. And somehow in the juxtaposition between that naive time and now, we see how much has changed and — at times distressingly — how much things have stayed the same.
Leiren-Young is a journalist, filmmaker and author. His books include Never Shoot A Stampede Queen which won the Leacock Medal in 2009 and was also adapted for the stage. He is currently working on a feature-length film on Moby Doll. ◊
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.