Spirits of the Coast

Edited by Dr. Martha Black, Dr. Lorne Hammond and Dr. Gavin Hanke with Nikki Sanchez

(1 customer review)


Spirits of the Coast brings together the work of marine biologists, Indigenous knowledge keepers, poets, artists and storytellers, united by their enchantment with the orca. Long feared in Western cultures as “killer whales,” and respected and honoured by Indigenous cultures as friends, family or benefactors, orcas are complex social beings with culture and language of their own.

With contributors ranging from Briony Penn to David Suzuki, Gary Geddes and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, this collection brings together diverse voices, young and old, to explore the magic, myths and ecology of orcas. A literary and visual journey through past and possibility, Spirits of the Coast illustrates how these enigmatic animals have shaped us as much as our actions have impacted them, and provokes the reader to imagine the shape of our shared future.

May 2020, Hardcover, 216 pages

ISBN 9780772677686

Categories: , , .


Dr. Martha Black has been the curator of Indigenous collections at the Royal BC Museum since 1997. She has a PhD in art history from the University of Victoria and an MA in interdisciplinary studies from York University, both focused on Heiltsuk art and museum collections. Before coming to the Royal BC Museum, she was curator and associate director of the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto.

Dr. Lorne Hammond has been the curator of history at the Royal BC Museum since 1997. His research focuses on British Columbia’s energy history. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Gavin Hanke is the curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal BC Museum. He has described and named 10 new fossil fish species, works with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to document marine fish distributions, and is working on a series of papers detailing many new species records and species range extensions along the BC coast. Gavin also works with the BC Ministry of Environment to collect and monitor exotic vertebrates.

Nikki Sanchez is a Pipil/Maya and Irish/Scottish academic, Indigenous media maker and environmental educator. She holds a master’s degree in Indigenous governance and is completing a PhD with a research focus on emerging visual media technology as it relates to Indigenous ontology. For over a decade, Nikki has worked as a wilderness guide, Indigenous environmental educator and decolonial curriculum advisor, and for two years she was the David Suzuki Foundation “Queen of Green.”

“With its heartfelt essays and stunning photographs of orcas in moments both intense and tender; colorful examples of Indigenous orca art, both historic and contemporary; and stories, legends, and science, Spirits of the Coast makes it clear that the survival of magnificent orcas “isn’t about managing the ocean, it’s about managing humans.” ”
—Kristine Morris, in Foreword Reviews

“Among all the marvels of life on the West Coast, there’s nothing quite like spotting a black dorsal fin arcing through the waves. The Royal BC Museum’s history- and culture-spanning exhibit on the orca was originally planned for a May 15 opening but has been pushed back to next year for reasons everyone knows and never needs to hear explained ever again. But the accompanying hardcover book has been published in advance. Its luminous, large-format pages offer everything from Haida storytelling to marine biology, all to show our too-often-ignored kinship with this astonishing animal. ”
—Brian Lynch, in the Georgia Straight

“Anyone looking for an introduction to the history, science and cultural significance of the orca could do no better than to start here. . . . Spirits of the Coast is a celebration of the orca, not a lament. It is impossible to read its essays, and to view its handsome illustrations, without recognizing that these are remarkable animals with whom we are privileged to share an environment and that we have a responsibility to do what we can to shield them from our own worst impulses. They are often seen as symbols, but symbols of what: renewal and stewardship, or environmental collapse? This is ultimately the question posed by Spirits of the Coast. ”
—Daniel Francis, in the Ormsby Review

“This ‘literary and visual journey through past and possibility’ is probably the best literary bargain you’ll find this year. . . . It juxtaposes gorgeous photos with sketches, poetry, Indigenous stories and first-hand experiences and observations of experts.” —Cherie Thiessen, in Pacific Yachting

Additional information

Dimensions 22.86 × 15.24 cm


1 review for Spirits of the Coast

  1. Linda Pennells

    If orca whales intrigue you, so will Spirits of the Coast-Orcas in Science, Art and History. It has the artistic beauty of a coffee table book but is much more. It begs to be read in instalments, with breaks for reflection, or discussing gems of content with our children.

    For centuries, orcas were feared as monsters and labelled as vermin. It was orcas like Moby Doll and Namu that opened human eyes and hearts. Moby Doll enchanted. While coping with the stresses of captivity, Namu let her trainer touch, scratch and ride her. The gentleness of Namu triggered the wide-spread capture, transportation and sale of live orcas. Skana convinced neuroscientist Paul Spong, who was testing her intelligence, that in fact, she was testing his.

    The book introduces several orcas who taught us lessons in how to understand them. Meet some of the orcas and their activist protectors who later ensured an end to whales in captivity. Whale activists were, and still are, a diverse lot, many being children. In 1987 when environmentalist David Suzuki took his eight-year-old daughter to film orcas in the wild, she wept instead of being awed. Asked why, she said, “Look how far it went on one breath of air…and those whales in the aquarium are kept in a tiny tank.” A child clearly saw the problem cetaceans faced in captivity.

    With these open eyes, the book also explores the intensifying threats to orcas including physical injury and acoustic disturbance from vessels, the contamination of our oceans and degraded food sources. It explores how pop culture can yo-yo public perception. The TV show Flipper and movie Free Willy warmed attitudes toward whales. The movie Jaws and the monster movie Orca: The Killer Whale chilled audiences.

    The book also helps unlock the sensory world of the orca. Tahlequah swam carrying her dead calf in a 17-day exhausting ritual of mourning. Haida sang her orca language to the accompaniment of jazz flautist Paul Horn.

    Spirits of the Coast is rich in the personal experience of those who have spent time with orcas. Ocean-based scientists. Aquarium trainers. Indigenous watchmen, authors and culture keepers.

    Indigenous people relate through oral history and legend how orca led their hungry people to fish, and their canoes through dense fog to safely reach their home communities. The content is diverse, as are the sources and media which range from anecdote, to science factoid, to poem and art.

    What unfolds is the reality that whales teach us. This a major transition from the days of humans teaching orcas tricks strictly for our entertainment. We have much more to learn from these unique creatures that warrant our understanding and protection.

    Spirits of the Coasts shares legend and learning, history, science and art. It is edited by Martha Black, Lorne Hammond and Gavin Hanke, with Nikki Sanchez. It sells in The Royal British Columbia Museum giftshop and online at https://shop.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.

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