Orcas in Von Donop Lagoon, ca. 1949 – by Lynne Jordan

Like a number of families in the 1940s, the Herrewigs were a logging family living on their camp floats in Von Donop Creek (now called Von Donop Inlet) on the northwest of Cortes Island. Violet Herrewig and Amy McKenzie remember in 1949 when five blackfish (that’s what everyone on the coast called killer whales/orcas in those days) managed to follow some salmon into Von Donop Lagoon on a high tide. You can paddle a small boat into the lagoon when the tide is high, but on a low tide the water rushes out like rocky rapids in a river. Midge Calwell recalled she had “never heard of killer whales coming in there before that. We were flabbergasted when the men came home from logging and said the whales were there.”

When the tide went out the orcas found themselves trapped, but even when high tide came in again, they still couldn’t find their way out of the lagoon and they just stayed there. The Von Donop Creek floating logging community took their dinghys into the lagoon, skirted around the edges to the far end, then on a high tide, tried to herd the trapped marine mammals out by banging on the sides of their rowboats and moving towards the exit channel. They repeated this on a number of high tides before finally giving up.

Midge also remembers many in the Von Donop logging float camps spent weeks sitting on the bank just on the outside waiting for them to come out. The small pod consisted of one large bull male, three females and one calf. The whales would come down to where the receding tidal waters flowed out of the lagoon and lay there, all in a line, and when the tide came in it brought fish for them to eat. Some boys watched them feed from up on a nearby spar tree used in logging operations. Schools of little fish swam in the shallows close to shore. The whales cruised back and forth in deeper water, then they’d turn, flap their tails, and wash the little fish into deeper water – lunchtime! One day Cliff, one of the boys high up on the spar tree, watched a baby orca being born. He could see clearly right down in the water from his perch. Two females kept bringing it up to the surface so it could breathe. They did that practically all afternoon but the newborn calf died.

Some scientists (not sure where from) who came to try and find out why they did not leave on a high tide, discovered the bull had received a deep wound in his side, suffered possibly while entering through the shallow, narrow, rocky entrance. Perhaps he didn’t want to take a chance of repeating this experience and so remained in the lagoon. This lagoon is fed by many streams and this dilutes the salt water flowing in with each high tide, which would not have been very healthy for the orcas over time. This saltwater dilution was also a factor in the death of Moby Doll, the first killer whale unexpectedly captured by the Vancouver Public Aquarium and kept outside False Creek in a temporary net pen at an old dock until her untimely death. Lesions form on their skin caused by parasites that don’t flourish in salty water.

Midge Calwell recalls the killer whales were in Von Donop Lagoon most of that summer in 1949. Word spread about the trapped whales, and people all over Cortes and nearby islands heard about the trapped orcas and boated around or walked across the island to see them. Some were fascinated and came to admire the whales. But there were those who didn’t care about them, and they walked in from Squirrel Cove with rifles for target practice at different times. They would shoot one, then return another time to shoot another.

The body of one female washed up on the beach just inside the lagoon. The other two females kept reaching out of the water and grabbing her tail, trying to drag her back into the water. The big male cruised back and forth behind where the females were apparently trying to rescue their dead friend. Their efforts had her tail fairly well chewed up before they gave up trying. Between the lack of food and all the shooting all five orcas died. The bodies beached in the lagoon. One carcass drifted out of the narrow entrance channel, the others remained to fertilize the lagoon beaches and provide meals for all levels of wildlife.

As a child, Doreen Guthrie recalls going into the lagoon to watch the killer whales and later to see the dead whales and have pictures taken with their carcasses, like others who lived in the Von Donop logging float camps. The carcass that eventually floated out of the lagoon, drifted down the inlet and lodged in the logs at the end of the Guthrie’s float. Doreen said, “It stuck there, its skin all patchy and peeling and the gulls pecking at it. It didn’t smell too good, either! Not missing a chance for a practical joke, Dad got Archie (Doreen’s brother) down looking at its teeth – then he jumped on the carcass! Well, you know what a burp coming out of that rotting carcass would smell like! I think Archie threw up for a week!”

Wilf Freeman remembers visiting Von Donop sometime after the lagoon stranding incident when he met a dead killer whale drifting out at the mouth of the inlet. He contemplated taking a tooth out of its mouth because it was drifting there with its mouth agape and he thought the teeth would be loose because there was decay around them. But when he steered his boat close to the carcass, he really got a whiff of it and wasn’t eager to stay there, so he carried on into the inlet without acquiring a souvenir.

Mike Herrewig wrote to the Department of Fisheries but his letter was apparently ignored as there was never any response from them. They didn’t even come to have a look. After all the killer whales were dead, one carcass floated up across the way on Read Island and then Fisheries people arrived, cut it all up, and took pieces away. Too late. At that time Fisheries was supposed to be interested in protecting blackfish and in having a sanctuary for them where they wouldn’t be shot at. Back then fishermen thought the orcas were eating too many salmon and depleting the stocks and their livelihoods. So fishermen all along the BC coast were known to shoot them whenever they could.

Today orcas are more revered and protected. For centuries the First Nations People have carved them in totem poles and claimed them as their spirits. Until the 1960s when the Vancouver Public Aquarium had Skana, one of the first orcas on exhibit, most people did not give a darn or care for those whales living in the oceans of the world. With a few orcas exhibited in marine parks and aquariums, people could get close to them and see what amazing animals they are. This began the movement to save the wild whales. Most countries now protect and preserve all whale populations, with the exception of a few countries still conducting whaling fisheries.

In the 1860s the Gulf of Georgia had a number of whaling companies that completely fished out all the whales which then had the knowledge of the sheltered inside passage route to their Alaska feeding grounds, as they migrated north annually from California.

It has taken 150 years, but now many species of whales are again finding the inside passage and each year more and more of them are seen in our sheltered waters. For a number of summers now, humpbacks have been seen hanging around Cortes Island in the northern Salish Sea, along with some grey and minke whales, joining the local pods of orcas.

A more current story happened one day in mid-July 2017 when there were 5 humpbacks hanging around and breaching for a few hours, along with a pod of 7 orcas, just off Manson’s Landing on Cortes Island, much to the delight of the many pleasure boats anchored in Manson’s Bay. The pod of orcas even came into the inner bay, passing under some boats and right next to the government dock.

In mid-August 2017, one afternoon there were 3 humpbacks breaching repeatedly on the very edge of Whaletown Bay on Cortes Island where the ferry comes in from Quadra Island. Word quickly spread from the vehicles waiting in line at the bottom of the hill all the way back up the lineup of about 40 vehicles. Everyone got out of their cars and came running down the hill to watch the amazing spectacle so close to shore. Eventually, the arriving ferry had to slow down & swerve to enter the bay. Once the ferry was loaded and on its way again, we heard the usual safety announcements and then the captain came over the speakers with, “Welcome aboard the Cortes to Quadra whale watching cruise!” Humpbacks and orcas are seen many times on this ferry route.

Sources:

From the Cortes Island Museum’s Von Donop Album interviews and stories by:
— Mike, Violet & Amy Herrewig
— Midge Calwell
— Doreen Guthrie
— Wilf Freeman

And from:

— The Daily Colonist September 28, 1969, “A Holiday With the ‘Hermit’ of Von Donop Channel” by Irene Hawkin-Orr.

Lynne Jordan

Lynne Jordan is the President of the Cortes Island Museum & Archives Society. She is involved in all aspects of operating this small museum, run entirely by volunteers. Lynne has compiled and helped write the first four in a series of history booklets about Cortes, as well as a historical self-driving tour booklet of Cortes and a kids activity book "Are There Whales in Whaletown?"
Lynne Jordan

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12 Responses to Orcas in Von Donop Lagoon, ca. 1949 – by Lynne Jordan

  1. Avatar
    Richard Yates March 14, 2018 at 6:09 pm #

    Sad to hear of the shooting of these whales years ago. Sad the some of the mentality is still around…

  2. Avatar
    John Ford September 27, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    Hello Lynne,

    Many thanks for thinking of me! Your blog is fascinating! I had read about this entrapment many years ago and these details add to the amazing story. My wife Bev and I spent a day in Von Donop last month on our sailboat — one can certainly see how the whales could have felt trapped in there. It turns out these whales were from the northern resident population which — at least over the past few decades — seldom make excursions down to northern Georgia Strait (except for A5 pod, which does go down to the Sunshine Coast periodically in winter). The genetic ID was made from the one skull that was collected.

    I hope to visit your museum soon.

    All the best,

    John
    John K.B. Ford, PhD
    Marine mammal research scientist (emeritus)
    Pacific Biological Station
    Fisheries and Oceans Canada
    Nanaimo, BC

    and

    Adjunct Professor
    Dept of Zoology and Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries,
    University of British Columbia

  3. Avatar
    Jeanette Taylor September 23, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

    Hi Lynne, I remember hearing about those trapped orcas. I’m going to put your note and a link to the orcas blog in the responses section of my blog.
    Jeanette

  4. Avatar
    Lee Sinclair September 22, 2017 at 1:53 pm #

    So happy that the association between “black fish” and people has improved. I was enthralled by this descriptive account of a rare sighting.

  5. Avatar
    John Blaxall September 22, 2017 at 10:03 am #

    Lynne

    Thanks for pointing that out – great story!

    Cheers
    John

  6. Avatar
    Mike Manson September 22, 2017 at 10:02 am #

    Hi Lynne,

    A fantastic story, one that I was not aware of. Thank you!

    Mike

  7. Avatar
    Pam Gaudio September 22, 2017 at 9:38 am #

    Hi Lynne
    I read you comment on Jeannette Taylor’s blog about your intention to write about the originator of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Would you please contact me at gaudio@shaw.ca.
    Thanks so much,
    Pam

  8. Avatar
    Bruce Ellingsen September 21, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    Hello Lynne,

    A very good review of the orca incident in Von Donop Creek. One very minor point that could be amended: Amy was not a Herrewig, she was married to “Scotty” (John Robert) McKenzie.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Bruce

    • Gina Trzesicka
      Gina Trzesicka September 23, 2017 at 5:50 pm #

      Hi Bruce,
      We are going to correct the blog.
      Thank you for your email.
      Cortes Island Museum, Gina

    • Gina
      Gina September 23, 2017 at 5:58 pm #

      Hi Bruce,
      We have corrected the blog. Thank you for your comment.
      Gina
      Cortes Island Museum

  9. Avatar
    Andy Lamb September 20, 2017 at 7:00 pm #

    Hi Lynne,

    Very much enjoyed your blog article and as you can see, I have forwarded it along to several scientific folks — a great read.

    Best Regards,
    Andy

  10. Jackie Hildering
    Jackie Hildering September 20, 2017 at 6:54 pm #

    Hello,
    Thanks Lynne, I often use the photos from that sad reality in my presentations to address human capacity for positive change. The further details in your blog are of great use to me. Thank you. I will also share the direct link on social media.

    Thank you!
    Jackie

    Biologist / Marine Educator

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