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Luna in Vancouver Island's Nootka Sound (Michael Parfit)

Whale of a Tale

When Luna, a people-loving orca, chose Vancouver Island's Nootka Sound for his home, he set in motion a drama of leviathan proportions

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It was a story about an animal, and then it wasn’t. It was just a story about a lonely whale, at first. Then it got completely out of hand.

The story began in June 2001 when a baby male orca went missing from the waters near the San Juan Islands, between WashingtonState and Canada’s Vancouver Island. He had been born in September 1999 into a group of about 80 orcas called “southern residents.” The group, named because it spends summers near the southern part of Vancouver Island, is listed as endangered by Canada and by WashingtonState, so the whale, nicknamed Luna in a contest held by a Seattle newspaper, was vital to its future. But a whale census taken in June 2001 did not find little Luna. Baby orcas almost never make it on their own, so scientists assumed Luna was dead.

They were wrong.

In April of this year my wife, Suzanne, and I drove to a remote and spectacular fiord called Nootka Sound halfway up the west side of Vancouver Island. We rented an apartment in GoldRiver, a mill town of about 1,500 near the sound, which has lost its mill and is trying hard not to go ghostly. This was where Luna had come back from the dead.

Luna showed up in Nootka Sound in July 2001. Among the first to see him was the crew of a spruced-up former minesweeper called the Uchuck III, which carries spools of cable to logging camps, beer to fishing lodges and tourists into ancient wilderness. The little whale came out of nowhere one day to cavort in the ship’s wake, and over the next weeks, as the Uchuck went back and forth on its regular journeys, he became bolder and bolder.

“He breached, did tail flips, blew raspberries and squirted water at us,” Donna Schneider, the ship’s cook, remembered. “Sometimes he’d go right down the side of the boat, flapping his flipper at us.”

Scientists identify killer whales by the individual shape of a splash of gray behind their dorsal fin, called a saddle patch, and the fin itself. They identified Luna by matching his patch with early photographs. Although his family, known as Lpod, had not been documented in Nootka Sound—200 sea miles north of their summer territory—Luna had somehow found his way here. And though he was the equivalent of a human toddler in orca years, he’d figured out how to eat enough salmon to keep himself alive.

Orcas, or killer whales, are actually members of the dolphin family. They are extraordinarily social; the southern residents stay together in their pods all their lives, which can be as long as humans’. But in Nootka Sound, Luna had no pod, so he made one out of people.

Soon, anyone who went out in a boat to Luna’s part of Nootka Sound might meet him. He’d occasionally come up, put his head up on the gunwales, open his mouth, and let you rub his tongue. He played fetch. If you put a boat fender out on a rope, he’d hold it in his mouth and play tug-of-war, gently enough not to destroy the fender. When a tourist’s hat fell off the Uchuck, Luna came up with it perched on his nose. When loggers dropped the end of a chain into the water, Luna brought it up and gave it to them. When he heard a familiar boat coming, he’d jump three times and then zip right over to ride the wake. To the people who played with him, he was a charmer, a rogue, a goofball, a rambunctious kid. People fell in love.

“You can see in people when they have been affected by a whale,” says Lisa Larsson, a researcher who studies whale sounds. “You really get moved by them, and you don’t know how, but it just touches you inside somehow.” Donna Schneider felt the same. On one occasion the little rascal came up beside the Uchuck, rolled over on his side, and looked her right in the eye. “When he looks at you,” she said later, “it’s like he’s looking right into your soul. I can’t breathe.”

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