Xmas Orca

Tidings of Comfort & Joy . . .

‘Xmas Luna’ is an orca of shining Christmas lights on English Bay. She’s 7 metres long, and she visits Vancouver at this time of year every year. She looks out over the beach to the Salish Sea. She’s seasonal and festive, and it’s that time of year, but she shows us less about orcas and more what we believe about them.

Xmas Luna would be frustrated if she looked for kindred in the ocean in front of her. There are only 74 resident orcas left, but Luna doesn’t seem at all concerned.

What if  Luna and the local orcas aren’t kin at all? They look somewhat similar, but this Luna is lying on her belly with her head in the air and her flukes to the sky. Millions of people have seen that pose–but they happen only in aqua-zoos. Wild orcas don’t do it.(1)

Why does Luna do this? Is it because we people like them that way? Performing orcas do this everywhere, and have for decades at SeaWorld, (until 2019 in US); Marineland, France; Kamogawa, Japan, etc. etc.

Orcas, SeaWorld, San Diego

There is no question that it’s a dazzling stunt for the end of an incredible show. It’s an up-close demo of the overwhelming size and power (and docility) of captive orcas.

Ironically, we want Luna-the-statue to look  like a SeaWorld whale. It seems that Marine-zoos have trained us to imagine all orcas are, or should be, performing whales.

What is the attraction of the theatrical drama? Is it to show that we can dominate even the apex predator in the ocean? Probably. But confusing the Xmas Luna with wild whales creates the real predator, the fictional orca. Of course, aqua-zoos are not the only creators of this orca story. Films have been especially prolific producing a huge repertoire of endearing whales: “Willie the Whale (1946)” [Willie wanted to sing in the Metropolitan], Free Willy, 1, 2, & 3 (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997),  Namu, the Killer Whale (1966), “The Whale: Friendship is Bigger than We Know” (2011), and many many others. Whales inevitably relate to human beings–usually whale whisperers–and there is a heartwarming bond between the two species.

Xmas Luna’s mnenomic pose captures the stage presence for the fictional orca. To create the Xmas Luna it’s also important to forget, or ignore, the realities of life in the ocean.

It seems it is easy to forget the very local. The plight of both captive and wild orcas very near Luna has been tragic. Five cetaceans have died in the last 2 years at the nearby Vancouver Aquarium. Since 2015 no orca calf has survived in the Salish Sea.

To create the new orca, Xmas Luna, you need to go beyond simple local oversight. There was an actual, original namesake Luna (L98). He (the real orca was male, the sculpture is always called female) lived part of his life in Nootka Sound in 2004-2006. This real Luna died suddenly, ironically, because he was much too friendly with humans.

Luna, Nootka Sound, c2005

He didn’t perform in the same way they do in SeaWorld, but people fed him, they patted him, he bumped their boats and teased them. He even made friends with their dogs!

That friendship ended abruptly in 2006 when he got too close to the propeller of a tug. It is odd that the Xmas Luna is named after the shredded Luna in Nootka. Our memories fade quickly.

Xmas Luna overlooked another predecessor as we look at that Christmas sculpture in festive lights. Tilikum was one of the most famous of captive orcas. He lived 33 years in captivity and his story is clear in the documentary  “Blackfish” (2013). Tilikum was known by all for his almost completely collapsed dorsal fin. Xmas Luna’s dorsal dips to the left too, but it hasn’t entirely collapsed. Her fin is far less obviously affected than Tilikum’s, but the bent dorsal is common for orcas in captivity. It’s almost unknown locally outside. Xmas Luna’s fin brands her as one more captive.

Blackfish, (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013) Tilikum’s captivity

Tilikum was also recognized for his role in  the deaths of 3 people. The last was Dawn Bracheau, in 2010, when Tilikum tossed her about and dragged her down like a transient with a seal cub. The memory of Tilikum needs to be expunged if Xmas Luna is to keep her public poise as a Christmas amusement.

Maybe Xmas Luna actually does come from a different sea. She resembles an orca, but she was designed by WK Illumination in Austria and she was manufactured in Slovenia. Neither is close to any sea. The West End Business Improvement Association (BIA) and Lumiere Festival sponsored the work, but will not acknowledge or deny any local (or distant) participation or sculptor.(telephone interview)

It’s depressing to think so much needs to be forgotten, or eradicated, but there is one exception to our cultural amnesia. At first it doesn’t much look like a critique of the public myth, but Doug Coupland’s “Digital Orca” (2009) does address the tension between Salish Sea reality and social fabrication.

Douglas Coupland, Digital Orca, 2010

The irony in Coupland’s ‘Orca’ is evasive. It takes a spectacular leap out of the (close by) water. Snowy mountains, clouds and blue sky fill the background. It’s the ultra-scenic view of orcas in Vancouver. It’s just like it’s supposed to be in our popular imagination.

In fact, it looks exactly like the stunts we have seen in aqua-zoos for decades. 40 years ago, for example, Haida used to make that exact leap in a minuscle pool in SeaLand, Victoria, BC. As a postcard says, it was a “spectacular leap for the delight of many spectators”.

Haida, orca, killer whale, SeaLand, orca training,
Haida, c1980 (captive 1968-1982) SeaLand, Victoria. postcard.

But Coupland isn’t just copying the thousands of popular images–digital images–in his work. The cubic surface of “Digital Orca” gives the effect of pixels in digital images.  It  looks like a huge zoomed-in photo. The rest of the scene is not pixellated; it’s a landscape that exists. We see the orca, but we also see that it’s a self-conscious digital delusion.

Looking back at all this forgotten, or deleted, heritage, Xmas Luna’s makers must have been searching the web looking for the right orca pose for this public statue. SeaWorld stars were perfect. People recognize the celebrity pose, and it seems that aqua-theatre is immune to memory. The tragedy of local whales, the macerated body of the actual Luna in Nootka Sound, Tilikum’s 33 years of captivity, and even the censure of “Digital Orca” are not part of the Xmas Luna seasonal experience.

Instead, the theatrical, euphoric SeaWorld fiction gives us a feeling of comfort (and joy?)–especially at Xmas–than the immanent demise of an endangered species.

Luna Tail during assembly 2017


(1) Some orcas in Argentina capture seals on the beach. Their attack doesn’t resemble at all the poses in SeaWorld or of Luna. e.g. https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/00000144-0a44-d3cb-a96c-7b4d63cc0000 (good photos)

Vancouver aquarium finally ended its 30 years of orca performance 1996.  It reluctantly discontinued its cetacean holdings in 2017 when it was directed to do so by the Stanley Park Board.

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