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 did he die?
Chisholm: He was six when he was killed . He was swimming behind a large tugboat. These tugs are massive, they've got propellers several meters long. The tug captain put the vessel into reverse and Luna was sucked into the propeller.

It sounds as if that was also kind of inevitable.
Chisholm: Well, I don't think so. The government was really not willing to try anything. After the failed capture event they threw up their hands and said "We don't know what to do here."

The program we were trying to get in place was one where he had a safe boat to come to for interaction. The idea was he needed social contact with somebody. If you have a safe boat, with trained professionals, designed by scientists and people who knew Luna's behavior, then he would get his interaction in a safe and consistent manner. We know that he needs his contact. If you could give him interaction in a safe way, he wouldn't be a danger.

The second part of our idea would be to lead him outside of Nootka Sound. If you could lead him out of Nootka Sound on a repeated basis it would expand his territory and give him the option that in the event his pod did pass by that he could make the decision whether to go with them or not. Hopefully he would have.

There was reluctance on the part of a lot of people to give him interaction because they thought it might spoil his chances of becoming a wild whale again. We argued that you've got to do something, because he was on a collision course.


Did you have qualms about becoming involved?
Chisholm: We agonized huge amounts over it. As journalists and filmmakers we hadn't really done that. It seemed like the most natural thing to do, because we thought that we were in a position to help him. It's one of those things we wouldn't have predicted when we got this assignment from Smithsonian to do this article. Who would have ever known that we would have spent so many years of our lives covering this? It's coming up on four years now.

What response has the film gotten from people?
Chisholm: In December we went to a film festival in China. It was very interesting because you don't assume that every culture has a fascination for whales and dolphins. But when we showed this film in China we had an incredible response. People were crying. The affection and respect that we had for Luna is a universal story.

Michael Parfit: People all over have responded to it. We tried to make it a universal story and not focus on the politics.

What makes him such a great story?
Parfit: To have a large, dynamic wild animal come up to you and need your attention, your affection, is just stunning. These sorts of things happen in fables. We have all these stories that we've heard as children about human beings making contact with one animal or another, but it really doesn't happen. Wild animals come to us when they are hungry or starving or they have dropped out of their nest and they need food. Sometimes we buy their friendship with food. This little whale didn't need that. He didn't need anything except what we call friendship. It breaks through all of these preconceived walls we have between ourselves and wild animals.


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