Some of the blackest days in Whidbey Island’s history came during the 1970s when Penn Cove was used as a holding area for killer whales captured for sale to marine parks.
Killer whales, known more fondly today as orcas, were herded into net pens near Coupeville by professional whale capturers. There was nothing illegal about it in those days, but a public backlash soon resulted in state and federal regulations outlawing such a cruel and barbaric practice. Wallie Funk, publisher and editor of the Whidbey News-Times, captured it all on film, taking photographs that still haunt us to this day. Efforts are still underway to bring home “Lolita,” the last surviving captured whale who is living out her days in a Florida marine park.
More than 30 years after the original debacle, something good may finally come out of it. Scientists are looking for the buried remains of perhaps five whales that did not survive the roundups. Some are said to be in the Coupeville area; others north of Oak Harbor. If the teeth or bones are found, they can be tested to provide a wealth of information through genetic and chemical testing. If any flesh was preserved, it would be a scientific bonanza.
Finding and examining the remains will tell scientists much about the killer whales of three decades ago, how they were related then and how they are related to today’s threatened whale population. We wish the scientists success in their quest. After all these decades of sadness, it would be great to have the whales tell us something that will help their descendants survive.