UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Looking for the killer : a history of orca encounters, 1861-1964 Werner, Mark


This dissertation examines the emergence of the killer whale in popular and scientific discourses (1861-1964). Today, the orca is beloved, a potent symbol of nature and a marker of the tenuous future of our oceans in an age of climate catastrophe and ecological precarity. However, for much of western history, the orca has been a pariah, vilified for their predations and cast as a monstrous glutton. The dissertation seeks to understand the historical roots of the orca’s terrible reputation through an analysis of public discourses, fictional works, and scientific texts. This study traces discrete pieces of knowledge related to the orca’s character, seeking to understand how embodied experiences of both orcas and humans shaped the representations of the species over time. The dissertation features a set of case studies: a dissection of an orca in Denmark (1861), Antarctic encounters with orca in the early twentieth century (1910-1929), and a wayward orca who took up residence in a slough near Portland, Oregon (1931). The project employs a large-scale gathering of news coverage related to the orca, showcasing the possibilities of animal-centered history in the age of mass digitization. The dynamics of orca-human encounters are a crucial thread for this project. Special attention is paid to the embodied dynamics of these encounters, integrating historical sources with our present-day understanding of orca behaviors and cultures. The dissertation traces how first-hand encounters with orca were packaged – as scientific facts or wild animal stories – and, ultimately, how accounts of human-orca interactions were either incorporated into the orca’s folk-biological reputation or lost to the past. The dissertation considers how specific stories became canonical to understanding the species. The interplays – between belief and encounter, expectation and interaction, intimate first-hand encounter and second-hand recounting of the events – are reoccurring themes of the dissertation, speaking to the uneven record of human interactions with the killer whale and the historical contingency of human attitudes towards orca.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International