“The Department of Fisheries had put knives on the front of their boats so they could ram these big sharks and kill them — and the sharks were harmless.”
The first time I heard this I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I thought I’d misheard, misunderstood. I asked again. Then I asked for an explanation.
I was talking to Murray Newman, founding curator of the Vancouver Aquarium. The now 91-year old Newman explained it again.
Fisheries policy in 1950s Canada was pretty much set by fishermen. The basking sharks would get caught in gill-nets, ruining them. The fishermen wanted a bounty put on their pointy heads.
The Canadian Coast Guard kindly offered to kill them for free, and put knives on the bows of their boats to impale the harmless creatures as they sat on the surface sipping up plankton. We didn’t capture the sharks, didn’t eat them, occasionally we hunted them for sport, but mostly we just slaughtered them.
In 2006, Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne wrote about how the creatures were declared “Destructive Pests” by the federal fisheries department, in their book Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.’s Gentle Giants (published by New Star). The pair wrote that in 1955 “the Department of Fisheries commissioned Alberni Engineering and Shipyards to design and install a death-dealing basking shark cutting blade on the bow of the regional fisheries patrol vessel, the Comox Post. The knifelike ram, although not overly sophisticated, was featured in the magazine Popular Mechanics in November 1956.
“When the crew of the Comox Post approached a school of basking sharks, the knife would be lowered from a hinge by a cable so that the cutting edge was just below the surface of the water. The knife is now housed in the Alberni Valley Museum in Port Alberni. Seeing the knife for the first time, you are struck by its sheer simplicity: It is a sharpened, triangular chunk of steel that was likely designed in a few minutes. Paradoxically, the basking shark, which embodies eons of biological design, was incapable of evading this executioner. Sharks cruising obliviously on the surface would be sliced in half.”
The book cites a Vancouver Sun story from August 24, 1956.
“The great shark slaughter began at noon and continued for hours. We littered the beaches with their livers and the bottom with their carcasses. Up and down the length of Pachena Bay we sailed, slashing and rendering [sic] with the huge knife on the bow of the Comox Post. It was a colossal fight between the ship and the sea monsters, with the ship winning all the matches.”
At the time, Newman wanted to get a sculpture of the basking shark for his aquarium before they were gone. He wanted people to see what kind of creatures were living in BC’s waters — while they were still alive.
This summer a basking shark showed up off the coast of Vancouver Island. Someone took a very pretty photo which gave the government a chance to remind people that today, instead of filleting them, the hope is to track the creatures. If anyone is ever lucky enough to spot one.
When I read the Vancouver Sun story this week about the shark sighting, I flashed on the apologies our government issue every so often for the historical wrongs committed against various populations. Dear Japanese Canadians . . . sorry about that internment thing . . . Dear Indo-Canadians . . . we really feel terrible about that Komagata Maru incident . . . And First Nations . . . where do we start?
But how do you apologize to a species?
How do you apologize to the generations that will never know that species?
This is from the DFO website. “Basking sharks are gentle giants that eat only tiny animals called plankton. They can reach sizes of up to 12.2 m (40 feet). They used to be abundant off our coast, but are now listed as endangered in British Columbia waters under the Species at Risk Act.” If you see a basking shark you’re supposed to call 1-877-50-SHARK (1-877-507-4275) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Newman wanted one other sculpture for his new aquarium — a savage killer whale — so he positioned a team on Saturna Island to harpoon a whale and kill it so that a sculptor could get close enough to craft a taxonomic replica for the aquarium. After that the plan was to dissect the monster so a scientist could study its brain.
The Coast Guard wasn’t ramming killer whales. Fishermen were shooting them on sight to stop them from snacking on salmon. Unless the whalers found them first.
In 1964, 800 whales were killed by whalers in BC and if you found a whale in BC waters for decades after that chances were it had at least a few bullet wounds.
Newman’s team accidentally caught the whale they were trying to kill, brought it back to Vancouver and named it Moby Doll.
I just produced a documentary about how Moby changed the world’s attitudes towards whales for CBC’s Ideas. (You can check it out here and it airs today, Monday, on Ideas in the Afternoon.) I’m also working on a feature documentary that should be in theatres next summer.
The clip below is from my first day of filming, when Newman and I met in his living room and talked about how the world looked at sharks and whales back in 1964 when all they saw were sea monsters. Or “destructive pests.”
Thanks to Moby Doll we still have Orcas.
But almost all we have left of the basking sharks are stories from the days when we were the sea monsters.