Saving whales and healing souls Between Breaths

Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell in a scene from Between Breaths. Photo: Ritche Perez

Jon Lien had never rescued a whale from a fishing net in his life. But when, in the late 1970s, he was asked if he could, he said, “Sure, I’ll see what I can do.”

So reports Newfoundland playwright Robert Chafe. His show Between Breaths – about the late, never-say-no Lien who built an international reputation for saving more than 500 whales from deadly entanglements on the Newfoundland coast – closes the current NAC English theatre season. Directed by Jillian Keiley with a live score composed and arranged by the Once, the production by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland starts May 7.

“One of the things that made him an individual was that he was a problem-solver,” says Chafe. A professor at Memorial University, Lien was asked by a fisherman if he could help that first whale back in the ’70s after CBC ran a story about Lien’s interest in the animals.

“He took his time and he figured out how to free the whale,” says Chafe. “Over the years, he became better and better at it.”

Just as importantly, Lien figured out how to free the whales from their deadly entanglements without destroying the nets, which were an expensive and crucial part of every fisherman’s livelihood. Ending those entanglements was becoming critical in the late 1970s as more animals were swimming closer to shore in search of food and getting caught in the nets. It wasn’t long before the “whale man of Newfoundland” became a respected figure among environmentalists and fishermen alike.

“He’d spend three or four hours with his head in the cold North Atlantic with a snorkel mask and a hand knife, making as minimal cuts as possible (in the net),” says Chafe. “And then oftentimes when the whale swam free, Jon and his guys would stick around and help pull in the catch with the fishermen. No wonder (the fishermen) loved him.”

Chafe was inspired to write about Lien, who died in 2010, after seeing This Marvellous Terrible Place, a stage adaptation of the book of the same name by Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott.

Lien was a minor character in the show, and Chafe says that when the actor spoke the line, “’The thing about the humpback whale is …’ I just burst into tears. I said, ‘Omigod, that’s Jon Lien.’ I said to my friend at intermission, ‘I think I have to write a play about Jon Lien.’”

At first Chafe — a Governor General’s award winner whose plays Oil and Water, Tempting Providence and others have previously played in Ottawa — thought that his new script would be about Lien finding a balance between the fishing industry and conservation. Then he discovered that Lien, who had been injured in a traffic accident in the early 2000s, had died after spending eight deteriorating years in a wheelchair and suffering from dementia.

When he mentioned that to his regular dramaturge Iris Turcott, she said, “So this guy who spent his life rescuing things became trapped at the end.”

With those words, Chafe had his defining metaphor for the play. Thanks to a suggestion from Turcott, who died of cancer during the play’s production, he also had his structure for the play: start shortly after Lien’s death and move backwards to that first whale rescue in 1978, thereby re-creating Lien’s own journey back to greater freedom through memory.

Although Chafe thinks he may have once met Lien briefly, he mostly knew him by reputation.  When he turned to Lien’s family and others for more information, “Every single person told me the same story, although they used different metaphors: if Jon had to get from point A to point B with a forest fire in between, he’d walk through it. He didn’t see danger, he didn’t see consequence, he saw only the end goal, and that could make him a difficult and frustrating person to work with.”

He says Lien, who was awarded an Order of Canada in 2008 for his work in preserving the marine environment, was also an eminently practical man. He’d spend endless hours trying to save a whale, but if it died, he and his team would dissect it for research.

He notes as well “the lore and legend which he somewhat cultivated about himself in Newfoundland.” That included how he’d try to catch the whale’s eye under water before working on the net, establishing a kind of mutual understanding with the animal before starting to work on it.

Chafe says our fascination with whales is rooted in part in their sheer size, comparing it to children’s fascination with dinosaurs.

But there’s also the fact that we know these animals, like dolphins, are smart. He remembers being at sea and a humpback circling the boat again and again, obviously curious. “There was this animal looking out past his own world into something else and going, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Between Breaths is in the Azrieli Studio May 7-18 (previews May 7&8; opening night, May 9). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.