Befriending Luna the Killer Whale

How a popular Smithsonian story about a stranded orca led to a new documentary about humanity’s link to wild animals

Separated from his pod along the Pacific Coast, Luna befriended the people of remote Nootka Sound on the western shore of Canada’s Vancouver Island. (© Suzanne Chisholm, 2004-2005)

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How long did the process take from when you first got there to the end of the story?
Chisholm: We went up there in 2004 just as the government was trying to capture him. You know from the Smithsonian article that the First Nations interfered with the capture. We lived up there for another two and a half years, pretty much full time for the last year. We ended up getting quite involved in trying to change the outcome of the story, trying to help save Luna.

Was it inevitable that you would become part of the story?
Chisholm: I guess in hindsight you could say so. You have an innocent and intelligent creature who needed help from humans. There was a huge amount of conflict over what was the right thing to do for him. After this big event in which the natives came out and prevented the capture from happening, you can look at it as a victory for Luna. It was quite possible that he would have gone into an aquarium had the capture gone through.

The government didn't have a very clear plan. If he got back down to the area where his pod was and still played with boats, the government wasn't going to give him very much time before they said "Okay, that's it, you're going to be shipped off to an aquarium." Of course, Luna was worth huge amounts of money to these aquariums. He was obviously a very intelligent, healthy killer whale.

That's one of the reasons the Native American tribes opposed it.
Chisholm: The media coverage put a very strong emphasis on the First Nations' cultural connection to the whale. When their chief passed away he said he was coming back as a killer whale. The same week that he died, Luna showed up in Nootka Sound. The killer whale happens to be a very sacred creature in their culture. A lot of them believed the whale embodied the spirit of their chief.

From our point of view he was an animal who needed help. It felt strange to be there covering this story and not trying to help him. We weren't what you call activists, but we really wanted to get out the information that here was a physically healthy, obviously intelligent animal in difficult circumstances. Captivity is a horrible life for these animals. They swim 100 miles a day. For them to be in a small, confined area is not a good life for these animals.

What were you doing to increase awareness?
Chisholm: We spent a lot of time writing for the Web. We also spent a lot of time and our own money going out on a boat and talking to people on the water. There were a lot of people frustrated with the situation. Luna was very persistent in trying to get attention. He would sometimes push boats around. People were threatening to kill him.

He wasn't malicious. He was just playful. Sometimes he would break things. He damaged a septic system at a marina. He would damage rudders on sailboats. He would also break off little transducers and depth sounders on the bottom of boats. He started playing with float planes, which have very fine control rudders and stuff. It was quite scary. There is no question that his presence was a problem for humans. That's something that we humans have to figure out. As we expand our territories, it's inevitable that there are going to be conflicts with wild animals. We should have done more to accommodate his presence.

Both of you developed a strong relationship with the whale.
Chisholm: We had never thought that it would be possible to have that kind of relationship with a wild animal. When Luna did come to us humans, he was asking for something, and I know it wasn't food. To have a wild animal come to you for social contact is really quite an amazing thing. He would flap his flippers, or turn over and look you in the eye. There was so much about him that we didn't know. Clearly he was trying to communicate. He would mimic sounds. If somebody would whistle he would whistle back in the same pitch. He also imitated sounds of chainsaws.

One of the things that struck us was he was extremely gentle. Never once were we scared for our own safety. There is no history of killer whales ever attacking humans in the wild.

Did he get to be full grown?
Chisholm: No, he was about 18 feet long. The males grow to be about 30 feet long. The big concern was that there would be an accident. The bigger he got, the stronger he would become. They are big animals with very big teeth, and he looks a little bit scary if you don't know any better.


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