Andrew Collins: Lights, camera, killer whale…

My obsession with orcas, which started at the movies

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I am obsessed by killer whales. They literally haunt my dreams. I have a recurring one that I’ve had since I was a teenager, and in it, I am always perilously close to a body of water in which at least one, but usually two adult killer whales are swimming, and I am in mortal fear of falling in, while at the same time fatalistically drawn to the orcas. Before you ask: no, I didn’t fall into a pool as a child, nor was I bitten by a fish. I’m not the world’s greatest swimmer, but that’s possibly because my Dad, who can’t swim, taught me to swim.

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I blame the 1977 film Orca: Killer Whale for my fixation. Shamelessly released in the wake of the success of Jaws, and almost factory-farmed to hit the same buttons, it has Richard Harris hamming it up as a hard-drinking, rogueish Irish fisherman in Newfoundland who, while seeking a great white shark for a local aquarium (see: it’s bigger than Jaws before it starts), accidentally harpoons and kills a pregnant female orca and her unborn baby, invoking the revenge of her mate, who wreaks havoc on the fishing village until Harris is forced to follow it out to sea for a one-on-one final battle.

It’s preposterous, and melodramatic, and mercenary, and the critics hated it, but it contains some haunting real-life footage of killer whales, and this gorgeous creature’s song features heavily. (Ennio Morricone did the music, which is equally goosebump-forming.) I saw the film as part of a double bill with SOS Titanic at the Northampton ABC, and my obsession started right there and then. (I’ve always assumed that the killer whale gored by the great white in Jaws 2 was the franchise’s revenge.)

I’m ashamed to say that I paid money to an aquarium in San Francisco in the mid-90s where I was able to see two live killer whales. Unfortunately, seeing them “perform”, and even to stand inches away from them as they glided past a viewing window under the water, filled me with a sense of terrible guilt and anger at their captivity. The hairs on the back of my neck were up for the whole time I was there. (I habitually visit the Natural History Museum in London to see the full-size model of the orca in the Whale Hall and listen to the recordings of its song. No orcas were harmed in the making of this activity.)

The orca is a wonderfully graphic looking beast in black and white – a recurring favourite of nature documentaries, notably Life On Earth and last year’s Frozen Planet – but has a checkered history at the movies. Keiko, the charismatic star of eco family adventure Free Willy and its forced sequels – and yes, I dashed out to see them all – was famously himself far from free, and his real-life release from an ocean park in Canada became a cause celebre. (He had been in captivity too long to be successfully released back into the wild.)

Meanwhile, one of the big talking points of the current Cannes festival is Rust And Bone, feted French director Jacques Audrillard’s latest tough-love story, in which – we surmise from the trailer, so this is no spoiler – Marion Cotillard has an accident at the marine park where she works as a killer whale trailer. This is good and bad news for me, with my love of an animal that’s all too often seen in its unnatural habitat. The trailer for the film is built around slo-mo footage of jumping orcas, and in one shot Cotillard stands against a viewing window similar to the one I stood against in California.

And yet, the actress is fiercely against the captivity of animals, as am I. She has said in interviews how uncomfortable working with captive killer whales was for her. Either way, selfishly, I get to see some onscreen when the film is released later this year.

The safest bet remains Happy Feet, the penguin-based computer animation which majestically introduces two killer whales keen to eat our avian heroes. When they rise from the water, black and white and toothy, it gives me as much of a thrill as the life-sized model eyeing up his Richard Harris-sized lunch in Orca: Killer Whale.

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I’m expecting that dream any time soon.