Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror

1: Killer Whale Captured Alive in Newport Harbor!

January 21, 2021 William Lobdell
Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror
1: Killer Whale Captured Alive in Newport Harbor!
Show Notes Transcript

In 1961, a wayward killer whale named Wanda was trapped in Newport Harbor by Marineland dolphin hunters, earning her the dubious distinction of being the first orca in the world to be taken into captivity. 

The sensational story, which has had a tragic international legacy of more than 50 years, is a largely forgotten chapter in Newport Beach history.

Episode 1: Killer Whale Captured in Newport Harbor!

A killer whale trapped in Newport Harbor became the first orca in the world to be captured alive. The sensational story with a tragic legacy of more than 50 years has become a largely forgotten chapter in Newport Beach history. 

Thank you for tuning into Newport Beach in the Rear View Mirror, I'm Bill Lobdell. In this episode, we're going to take a deep dive into one of the craziest and ultimately saddest stories in Newport Beach history. And despite making news locally, nationally, and even internationally, this is a slice of Newport beach history that's been strangely forgotten. I only came across the story by accident. I was looking through The Daily Pilot archives from the early 1960s. I was looking for a story for another episode of this podcast, and I came across this headline, all six or seven columns across the Daily Pilot, "5,000 Applaud Capture of Whale in Newport." And so that was enough to get my interest, but I just thought it was maybe a migrating gray whale that took a wrong turn at the Newport Harbor entrance and got turned around and they somehow threw a net over it or whatever and escorted it back out to sea.

 But then the subhead was, "Killer Whale at Marineland." So this is a killer whale? Now on a complete side note, if you're a headline writer, you need to get killer whale in the main headline. Don't just say, whale captured, killer well captured. But anyway, the story was wonderful, it was written in the sort of breathless dramatic prose of days gone by. And I couldn't wait to read after the jump, it's the sort of a cliffhanger there. And of course, whoever archive the Daily Pilot newspaper failed to archive the page which held the jump. But I got the gist of the story, which was for the first time in history, history of the world, a killer whale had been captured alive and it happened right here in Newport Harbor.

So I searched for other accounts of this killer whale captured story and there were a lot of them. The Southern California newspapers provided pretty intense coverage and those stories were picked up by the wires, which made them national and international news. In addition to that, a number of books have been written about whales in captivity and Wanda, which she was named by the local press here, always top the list as being the first Orca captured. Then I even ran across some academic papers that detail the capture and Wanda's legacy in the amusement park world. And all of this provided plenty of material to put together this forgotten story.

It all began quietly on a chilly November evening, about a week before Thanksgiving in 1961. Under the cover of darkness, the killer whale slipped into Newport Harbor and made its way up the main channel, sailboats and mansions on its right and left, past the pavilion, past the Balboa Island Ferry, past the Balboa Bay Resort, and Lido Isle, until it reached the dead end, which is the Lido Channel turning basin. And for those who aren't familiar with Newport Harbor, that's near the intersection of Coast Highway and Newport Boulevard. And soon after daybreak on November 17th, boaters and passersby saw an incredible site, even more so because this is back in the day where very little was known about orcas. But they're in their Harbor was a 17 and a half foot, 5,000 pound, fully mature Orca swimming within the confines of the turning basin.

Now back in 1961, there was very little known about killer whales. There was a lot of myths around them that they were these vicious maneaters, the local media while reporting this story called them the most vicious creatures on land or sea, but the public in general was pretty ignorant about the orcas. And so much so that when the Harbor patrol came on the scene at the turning basin, they quickly identified the whale as a California gray whale that had been lost during its migration South and would soon get out of the Harbor and head back down to Mexico. That was a brutal misidentification, but shortly everything would be sorted out and Newport residents would know they had an Orca on their hands.

Of course, at this point, the Harbor patrol started changing their tune and began warning boaters not to get near this highly dangerous animal. The boaters watch this whale play among the yachts and come up and play peek-a-boo with them. And as one media report said, "Wanda was playing tag with them." And so boaters didn't take the advice of the harbor patrol deputies and got closer and closer and closer to the whale, not feeling any threat. Local Newport beach officials had no clue what to do. They didn't have a lot of experience in killer whales, and how do you get a killer whale out of your harbor? Well, they ended up calling Marineland of the Pacific, that was sort of a predecessor to SeaWorld and it was located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. So the Newport Beach folks said, "Hey, we got a killer whale stuck in our Harbor, can you come help?" I'm sure the answer was right away, "Heck yeah, we'll be there in an hour." So they jumped in their vehicles and headed down the coast to join the thousands gathered around the Lido Channel turning basin.

Now the Marineland folks reminded me of those government officials, shadowy government officials in the movie E.T. that were relentless in trying to track down E.T., the alien, and be the first to capture an extra terrestrial being. So while they're watching this killer whale they were devising a plan, how do we capture it? And more importantly, how do we capture it alive? And so they sat there all afternoon and returned to Palos Verdes that night with a plan.

The next morning in the pre-dawn hours, the Marineland team, which the newspapers called whale hunters, headed down to San Pedro Harbor, climbed aboard their collection boat, Geronimo, and motored 50 or so miles down the coast to Newport Harbor. Now I can't imagine what was going through these men's mind. They were about to try to capture a killer whale alive. It had never been done before. No one knew much about the killer whale's behavior, would they die? Would they fail? Would they get injured? What would happen, and also what would be the level of fame if they can pull this feet off? So it's almost impossible, especially at this point in time to put yourself in their shoes, but it must have been quite a mix of emotions.

So they entered the Harbor right before sunrise at about six 30 in the morning, and yeah, there was Wanda just doing circles around the turning basin. By this time word had spread about the killer whale, Pacific Coast Highway was packed, Newport Boulevard was packed, everybody wanted to see this killer whale and what was going to happen to it. At that time, Marineland whale hunters, and dolphin hunters and sea hunters, I guess they would capture dolphins and pilot whales using a lasso, and there's not a lot of details, but I'm assuming they lassoed through the tail. I think it'd be hard to lasso the head or even just hold on, but that was their procedure. In this case, the whale was 5,000 pounds and they thought about doing the lasso, but ultimately they decided to try to capture Wanda using a huge net. It measured 1200 feet wide, which is four football fields and 75 feet deep, which is deeper than the depth of that turning basin.

So they threw out the net in the path of Wanda and time after time again she would deftly skirt it, go under it, go around it. And eventually the crowd, which swelled to five to 7,000 depending on which account you read, started cheering for the whale. So when they throw out the net and the whale went around it, they'd yell at unison, "Ole, ole." And they all pretty much fell in love with the whale, and it became kind of a... It was a little bit like a David versus Goliath story, if David happened to be a 17 and a half foot female killer whale.

Now there were times where she actually did get caught up in the mesh and she was so strong she just broke right through, and this pleased the crowd even more. The net was tossed both from the collection boat, but they also brought along a skiff that they took to get a little bit closer. The head of Marineland, perhaps fittingly, through out the net and leaned over a bit too far, and he went right into the water, the crowd was horrified. Of course, no one knew what the most vicious creature on land or sea would do to this poor guy who had been hunting him, but he managed to swim 25 yards back to the boat and of course he was unharmed and the hunt continued. This went on all day long from sunrise to almost sunset.

At dusk, a very tired Wanda got tangled up in the nets and just didn't have the strength to get out and the Marineland team, the Marineland whale hunters had their Orca. And they were giddy about it, the general manager said that the whales "mistake" of swimming into the harbor was, "One of the greatest things that had ever happened to us. And that there was no way to put monetary value on her, now we have everything." He went on to say that, "Wanda is more important to us than all of the Marineland fish together."

But now the Marine land team faces it's next problem, how in the world do you get a 5,000 pound killer whale up the coast, 50 miles to Marineland? Well, here's what they did. They took a deflated raft, put it underneath the killer whale and they blew up that raft, tied the raft to the tugboat and slowly motored over to a boat yard that had a crane on it. Next, they lifted Wanda up out of the water and onto a flatbed truck that had a tarp with a few feet of water in it.

At this point, this had to be a super anxiety producing moment for the Marineland whale hunters. This has never been done before. Few people knew anything about this mysterious creature of the deep, what they had heard were horrific stories from fishermen and others about this killing machine, the killer whale. And they were pleasantly surprised and took a little bit credit for the fact that Wanda was so docile as she was being tied down to the flatbed truck and then wrapped up in towels, wet towels for the 50 mile drive up to Palos Verdes.

At Marineland a very tired and defeated Wanda was lowered into a claustrophobic tank that was going to be her new permanent home. Killer whales can travel 50 to a hundred miles in a day no problem, her tank was a hundred feet at its widest, 50 feet at its narrowest and 19 feet deep. She was basically in what would be for us, a small splash pool. That aside, the Marineland PR team, eager to feed the media frenzy started cranking up stories about Wanda and how happy she was and that she was "Relishing, the tons of chopped mackerel and squid being fed to her by the delighted keepers at Marineland."

She was basically in what would be for us, a small splash pool. The real story was that she wasn't eating at all, and she was having a hard time navigating the tank. When she first was put in there, she bashed the wall hard with her head. She eventually started to swim in counterclockwise circles like most captive orcas do, but she was far from happy and Marineland officials couldn't figure out how to get her to eat. By one account, their own account, they were, "Slapping her on the nose with a bonito tied on a long cord, hoping that she'll get mad at it and bite it, thus learning she can obtain handheld food." None of this worked and little more than a day later, Wanda died.

This is what they wrote in the Marineland logs, "At 8:30 AM on November 20th, the whale became violent, and after encircling the tank at great speed and striking her body into the walls on several occasions, she finally convulsed and expired." The autopsy ruled that Wanda was suffering from several ailments, including an infection in her intestines and pneumonia, but others called it basically a suicide. She was driven insane by this ordeal of being trapped in Newport Harbor, being hunted for a full day, being caught in a net, lifted out of the water, put on a truck carted to Marineland, put in a dinky tank, that that all was too much for Wanda.

Now the Marineland officials didn't mourn long for Wanda. They were soon up at Puget Sound trying to capture another killer whale. They took their 40 foot long collection boat, Geronimo, and it still remains unclear to me how they were going to actually capture the whale and get it to shore. It's going to be a 17, 20 foot killer whale on a 40 foot boat, or did they have some sort of raft they were going to drag behind them or exactly what? But that remains a mystery to this day.

They eventually spotted two killer whales, swimming peacefully towards their boat. One of the Marineland collectors was able to lasso the female, and not surprisingly, she went crazy, dove under the boat. The rope at the end of her tail got caught up in the propeller. Her mate came over, was squealing, splashing the water, bumping the boat. One member of the Marineland team took out a 357 magnum rifle, took aim and shot the male once at basically point blank range. The orca then sunk to the bottom of Puget Sound. Then they shot the female 10 times and then towed her carcass to the main land to have the animal weighed and measured and sold for dog food. The head of Marineland took the teeth as souvenirs.

As was mentioned at the top of this episode, Wanda's legacy is a sad one. Marineland and amusement park officials in general saw, from this incident, the popularity of killer whales and the connection a killer whale can have with an audience. In addition, Marineland proved that you can capture a killer whale alive, and that process just needs to be improved upon to keep them alive for more than two days. So for the next half century killer whales would be captured and bred in captivity for the pleasure of amusement park goers, which in turn filled the pocketbooks of the amusement park owners until a series of articles and influential movies such as Free Willy and Blackfish changed the public's mind and they no longer wanted to be complicit in keeping killer whales in captivity.

So there you have it, one of Newport's most sensational, impactful and forgotten stories that has reverberated across the globe for more than a half century. Thanks for getting into this podcast time machine with me and traveling back to 1961. We'll see you next time.