Much-anticipated orca exhibit opening at Royal B.C. Museum

·3 min read
Orcas: Our Shared Future is scheduled to run at the Royal B.C. Museum from April 16 to Jan. 9, 2022.  (Royal BC Museum - image credit)
Orcas: Our Shared Future is scheduled to run at the Royal B.C. Museum from April 16 to Jan. 9, 2022. (Royal BC Museum - image credit)

A new exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum will take you into the lives of the killer whale populations of British Columbia, with a specific focus on the southern residents.

The much-anticipated Orcas: Our Shared Future, which was delayed by a year due to COVID-19, is scheduled to open on April 16.

Gavin Hanke, the curator of vertebrate zoology at the museum, says the exhibit brings together the work of scientists, Indigenous knowledge-keepers, and poets, artists and storytellers.

"You can't walk anywhere in British Columbia without seeing something relating to orcas," said Hanke. "They are very important to culture here for everyone along our coast."

Textile conservator Colleen Wilson repairs a button blanket that will feature in the upcoming exhibition.
Textile conservator Colleen Wilson repairs a button blanket that will feature in the upcoming exhibition. (Royal BC Museum )

The exhibit features full, life-sized orca replicas as well as more than 100 important cultural and scientific artifacts like the articulated dance mask by Richard Hunt (Kwaguilth), an intricately carved gold killer whale box by Bill Reid (Haida), and a specially commissioned painting by Haida manga artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

"I'm not an orca biologist so it was a huge leap for my normal fish, reptile, amphibian research to jump into marine mammals," said Hanke.

"I've met a lot of great people, a lot of orca experts and reconnected with some old friends over this exhibit. It's been a real eye-opener."

A female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound near Seattle.
A female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound near Seattle.(Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Hanke says he hopes the exhibit will also shine a spotlight on the severe environmental challenges that exist for the southern resident killer whales, a primarily salmon-eating group of orca families that mostly stay in the Salish Sea in summer and fall, but can range between San Francisco and southern Alaska at other times.

Among the artifacts are the skeletons of Rhapsody (J32) and her unborn calf. Rhapsody was an 18-year-old southern resident killer whale who died in 2014. She had been pregnant with a full-term fetus.

A necropsy showed the whale had a very thin layer of blubber and had been starving.

The skeleton of the orca Rhapsody, which died while full-term pregnant, is unpacked for the exhibit.
The skeleton of the orca Rhapsody, which died while full-term pregnant, is unpacked for the exhibit.(Royal BC Museum)

"Rhapsody was the real turning point for me," said Hanke. "… When the necropsy was finished, the tissues had to be disposed of in a landfill as toxic waste. That's from bioaccumulation through the food chain."

Hanke said the incident inspired him to make changes in his own life like adopting a vegan diet and buying an electric car.

"One of the central roles of the museum [is] to act as a filter, basically, between science and material that you might only find in an university library and make it available to the public — not just adults, but to children, teens, seniors."

The exhibit is set to run until Jan. 9, 2022. COVID-19 visitor protocols are in place at the museum.

Listen to the interview on CBC's On The Island: