Whale of a Tale | EcoCenter: Greener Living | Smithsonian
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.”

During our first week at GoldRiver, Suzanne and I were crossing a bay at high speed in our 14-foot Zodiac when Luna showed up unexpectedly. First, he leaped about 50 yards away. We were going over 15 knots. I thought we could keep away from him, but I was wrong. The next moment he blasted out of the water right next to us, going just as fast, his skin brushing the starboard side. He was bigger than the boat, and a lot higher. Boom, splash, a huge smooth back, a rush of noise, a rush of breath, a cascade of water in the face, then he was gone.

To me it was as if some barrier had evaporated, like the mist of the whale’s breath. Everything had changed. It was about then that I figured out that this was not just a story about an animal.

An intense response to an animal feels unique when you’re having it, but it isn’t. In fact, that kind of response is the focus of a growing new academic discipline called anthrozoology. To James Serpell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the field, the effect Luna has on people is not surprising.

“People’s attitudes are very affected by an animal’s anthropomorphic characteristics,” he says. “Their size, the fact that they’re long-lived and have complex social lives, are all things that people equate with human characteristics. But with whales, people are also attracted by the elemental difference between them and us. When whales cross that barrier, it almost has spiritual meaning. That whales should want to be with us is both flattering and disturbing. It makes us rethink our whole relationship with animals.”

The people of GoldRiver aren’t anthrozoologists, but they understood the feeling. “When that whale came,” Schneider said, “we thought it was a gift.” The town that had been struggling with the closing of the mill now had something to delight in. “People always talked about how we lost our jobs,” said Remi Charette, a former millworker who now runs a cappuccino shop. “Hey, we got nothing to talk about now but Luna.”

In Luna’s early days in Nootka Sound, another piece of the story started to emerge, something even more freighted with emotion—and, as it turned out, with more consequence.

Nootka Sound is also home to an aboriginal band called the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation. This band, or tribe, is heir to a grand tradition. Its people met James Cook, the great explorer of the 18th century, conducted a successful trade in sea otter pelts and even captured a white man’s ship and took slaves. Today the tribe is down to just under 500 people, who live in a village near GoldRiver and struggle to overcome the many social problems that afflict aboriginal people everywhere.

In late July 2001, the patriarch of the band, Ambrose Maquinna, died. His death left a gap in the band’s confidence, and a hole in the heart of his son and new chief, Mike Maquinna. Shortly after Ambrose died, one of the old man’s friends went to his son. “Your father told me this,” the friend said. “‘When I go home, I want to come back as a kakaw’in.’” An orca.

A few days after Ambrose Maquinna died, stories came in from people down the sound about the lone orca they’d seen. Like Donna Schneider, Mike Maquinna had found a gift.

All this had developed in relative obscurity. But in late January 2002, Luna was announced to the world.

“A most unusual situation has developed here in British Columbia,” wrote John Ford, a scientist who works for the Canadian department of fisheries and oceans (DFO), in an open letter to a whale advocacy group. Ford went on: “The . . . situation is the first time that a young resident whale has been found separated from its pod for a significant length of time.”

The next day, newspapers picked up the story. The people of Nootka Sound would now have to share their whale with the world. Not only that, but their days of carefree play with Luna were officially over. The DFO announced that they would now enforce a law that doesn’t allow people to disturb marine mammals. “Disturb” includes almost any contact, including that initiated by the animal itself.

The man who would lead this enforcement was Ed Thorburn, a GoldRiver fishery officer. Thorburn (p. 68) is forthright, with graying hair and a mustache. Though he does not, of course, talk about his feelings for Luna, his computer’s screen saver has two sets of images: the Newfoundland street where he grew up, and Luna. Thorburn was one of the first people to see Luna in Nootka Sound, and he watched the animal grow increasingly friendly to boats—and to him. Sometimes the whale would throw water at him with his tail, and sometimes when Thorburn stood with one foot up on the gunwale of his big Zodiac, the Rugged Point, Luna would come partway out of the water and rest his head on top of Thorburn’s shoe.

“This is not accidental,” Thorburn told me one day. “This sort of thing is deliberate action. I think he’s as smart as you can get.”

Thorburn was up against a variety of smart moves when it came to enforcing the rules. Both tourists and GoldRiver residents now used ruses to spend time with the whale—accidentally on purpose. Every time Thorburn found a boat stopped with Luna cavorting around it, he said, “people would say ‘I ran out of gas.’ Or ‘I had to switch tanks.’ So what happened was Luna became more and more enamored with boats.”

But fishermen found Luna’s attentions a mixed blessing. “If the fish weren’t biting, you could go over and play with Luna,” said Remi Charette. On the other hand, you can’t fish at all when a whale is pushing you around; Luna often played longer than people wanted; and he liked to break underwater transducers, which send out sonic pulses for fish-finders.

“When you’re out there and you get Luna, it’s like you have the plague,” one fisherman said. “You can’t get rid of him, and nobody wants to come around, because they’re afraid they might catch him from you.”

Some encounters led to stronger emotions. Once I watched a charter fishing boat coming in to dock at GoldRiver. Luna approached the boat and started pushing against its outboard motors. The boat’s skipper leaned over the side as Luna came up to breathe. “Luna!” he shouted. “Knock it off!” Then he muttered, “Stupid whale.”

And when the Uchuck was told to stop pausing to play with Luna, Donna Schneider got angry. “How do they know that it’s wrong to interact with a whale?” she said later.

The answer, like almost everything with Luna, is complicated. Usually animals only associate with humans when people bring food. But dolphins and whales, more than most other animals, occasionally seem interested in making contact with people simply for social reasons.

Around the world, a number of wild dolphins have chosen to spend time with people, and in recent years a few beluga whales have done the same thing. One of these, a beluga nicknamed Poco, has been associating with people on the east coasts of both Canada and the United States for the past year.

But in spite of the occasional success story, the outcome of these encounters is rarely happy. “In general,” says biologist Toni Frohoff, “the more contact the animal has with people, the more likely it is for people or the animal to become injured.” Frohoff is a marine mammal biologist in WashingtonState who studies what she calls solitary sociables, whales or dolphins on their own who choose to associate with people. She describes the relationships that develop as complex and risky. People, she said, tend to think of these mammals like domestic animals or even toys, but “cetaceans are probably expecting people to behave like cetaceans.” Frustration ensues, encounters are sometimes more dangerous than fun, and often the animal is injured or simply disappears. While researching a paper for the International Whaling Commission, Frohoff came to a stark conclusion: “The animals that had the most contact with humans had the least likelihood of survival.”

This fear fed an effort, led by a phalanx of whale advocacy groups from both sides of the border, to move Luna back to his pod. They argued that in associating with people, Luna was a danger to himself and others; if he were returned to his pod, he would be important as a breeding male; and if he were to live again with whales, his interest in people would probably fade. The groups demanded that Luna be somehow reunited with his pod as soon as possible and in the meantime that people be kept away from him.

During the next several months, two people were arrested and convicted of having broken the law by petting Luna. Aboater allegedly hit Luna with a board to try to get him to move. Luna himself made things more complicated by spending a lot of time at the Gold River dock, where, when Thorburn or his colleagues weren’t there to chase people off, he would delight visitors by moving from boat to boat, touching people’s hands, playing with fenders and hoses, and bobbing up to nuzzle their startled dogs.

But the whale advocacy organizations kept up a steady drumbeat of emotional demands—“He’s going downhill fast,” said one campaigner—that Luna be moved. Though biologists resist describing animal behavior in human terms, the campaign helped itself along by calling Luna lonely. Ed Thorburn contributed: “I see a sadness in his eyes,” he wrote. “I truly believe he is very depressed.”

In October 2003, the DFO, in collaboration with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, decided to make a move. If Luna’s pod swam near Nootka Sound, the two groups later announced, Thorburn would try to take Luna to a reunion by leading him out to the open sea where he could hear his family’s calls. Otherwise a team of aquarium experts would catch him in a net pen, hoist him into a truck, and drive him to a pen closer to his pod’s home ground, where he’d be released when he made an acoustic connection.

Whale advocacy groups were happy, but GoldRiver residents had mixed feelings. Some people were glad, but others were suspicious that it was all just cover for a scheme to sell Luna to an aquarium. (The DFO said that permanent captivity was an option, but only as a last resort. It denied any conspiracy.) Others thought science was being arrogant.

A sign appeared in a deli window. Under the heading “Luna vs. Human Assumptions,” a French-Canadian woman wrote: “[W]e can conclude . . . that whales are intelligent, social, affectionate. Do we know their thoughts, language, and feelings? . . . Who are we to disturb nature’s course and determine what is best for him?”

It was clear that the Mowachaht/Muchalaht people did not want Luna moved, but nobody knew if they were going to do anything about it. Mike Maquinna said to reporters only that “nature should take its course.” Ed Thorburn did not see any threat from the natives. “My own personal belief is that they won’t interfere,” he said.

On a warm May evening Luna came into the GoldRiver docks and moved restlessly from boat to boat. The people on the dock laughed when he played with a boat’s hose, bending it around so it squirted straight up in the air. Some of us could not help but detect humanlike feelings. Suzanne found it poignant: “He just seems so desperate for company.”

A few days later, as the men started to put together a pen near the dock, Suzanne and I climbed a hill with Lisa Larsson. She had kept detailed logs of Luna’s calls for a research project run by an organization called OrcaLab, which monitors whales near northern Vancouver Island, and specializes, in part, in studying their calls. Larsson joked that after months of listening to Luna, she felt like his nanny. She was strongly in favor of his reuniting with his pod, she said, but she was uncomfortable about the way the DFO was going about it.

The big net trap, the hoist cranes and a plan to bolt a tag to his dorsal fin bothered her. “It would be so much nicer not to cause him any distress,” she said. Like almost everyone, Larsson hoped that Luna’s pod would swim near Nootka Sound on its way to its summer home, so that he could just be led out to meet his family. Thorburn shared that wish. For weeks, he had been teaching Luna to follow the Rugged Point, so he could take him to a reunion. But the pod didn’t swim nearby. So it was decided that Thorburn would have to lead Luna to the pen instead.

The day that the DFO announced plans to go ahead with the capture, I again asked Mike Maquinna if he was going to do anything to oppose it. He gave a faint grin, “We’re going to call up a big storm,” he said, “so they’ll run out of money and go away.” It sounded like a joke.

By the morning of the announced capture, June 16, reporters had poured into GoldRiver. The day was sunny, but everyone was on edge. I went down to the docks early, but Thorburn had not yet gone out to lead Luna toward the pen. Then, while I stood there wondering what to do, I heard the sound of singing: a paddlers’ chant sung by many voices.

From behind the dock two traditional dugout cedar canoes emerged, lashed together, full of members of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation, paddling and singing.

They paddled away from the dock. They got a half a mile out in the sound, and suddenly, there was Luna, right beside them, blowing bursts of mist in their faces.

I ran down to my Zodiac and followed.

Everything now seemed to happen in slow motion. The canoes paddled away gradually; Luna followed them. Amorning breeze came down from the mountains. The canoes put up a rectangular sail, and drifted gently before it in the sunshine, the green sail bright against walls of forest. Carried in the gentle wind, the sound of singing filled the narrow fiord.

By the day’s end, the natives had taken Luna 30 miles down the sound to a distant bay. “The overall feeling was as long as we keep him occupied, we’d keep him away from that pen,” said Eugene Amos, one of the paddlers. “Then somewhere along the line it dawned on us that, my God, we’re fighting for his freedom.”

That’s how the story changed again. It now came down to something more immediate and fundamental: a fight over freedom.

The first day’s canoe journey, reported around the world with glorious photographs of Luna putting his head up right beside the canoes to be petted, was a huge public relations victory for the natives. But the DFO still planned to put Luna in the pen.

The dispute over Luna went on for nine days. On many of those days, Thorburn went out in the Rugged Point to try to lead Luna toward the pen. On many of those forays, Mowachaht/Muchalaht paddlers were also there in one or two canoes to lead Luna away.

Luna acted as if it were a game. When Thorburn’s boat showed up, he jumped and splashed; when the canoes showed up, he went porpoising over to them, bobbing up and down to be stroked by hands and paddles. It was fun to watch, but underneath was a sad irony: only now, when people were fighting over him, was Luna finally getting the attention he appeared to crave.

Everything came to a head on a memorable Tuesday, June 22. I had gone out early in my Zodiac, though not early enough to catch the first act of the drama. By the time I caught up to the action, Thorburn, with two other boats alongside, was leading Luna through a narrow canyon of water about ten miles from the pen. Two miles behind, a single canoe was losing ground. Its paddlers were hot and tired after hours of futile work.

Then Luna got a bit goofy. The Rugged Point passed a booming ground, where men sort logs with little “dozer boats” before shipping them out. Luna stopped to play behind a log boom, out of Thorburn’s reach. Luna splashed around with a dozer boat for about half an hour while Thorburn’s flotilla drifted impatiently outside and the native paddlers in the canoe drew closer and closer.

When Luna finally came out, the canoe was less than a mile away, paddles flashing in the sunlight. After Luna took another break to investigate a fishing boat, the paddlers had caught up; Luna left Thorburn to join them.

The wind had picked up to about 25 knots, blowing the tops off whitecaps. The exhausted paddlers turned their canoe into the wind and struck out against it to lead Luna away. Slowly, agonizingly, the paddlers progressed. One mile, then two. Thorburn’s boat moved around them. The wind blew up a haze that swept low along the water. The paddles rose and fell, rose and fell. The wind increased.

And the story deepened again. Now it was about courage as well as freedom. For a moment, the rights and wrongs of whether Luna should be moved to his pod didn’t seem important. Now the story was also about those men and women of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht band, who had been given up for lost in the pod of humankind.

I stood on a rock, watching them come back from their many setbacks, watching them drive that canoe into the wind, one paddle stroke at a time, leading the whale, a symbol of their past and their hopes for the future, toward safety; building, against the craziest of odds, yet one more legend of perseverance and bravery in the 4,000-year-long story of their life on the shores and waters of Nootka Sound.

As the wind blew back toward me across the disturbed water, I heard the barking of Ed Thorburn’s bullhorn demanding that the paddlers stop interfering, and the strong sound of the only answer: their voices, singing.

The water was too rough for my Zodiac. The canoe pulled out of sight. So I ran before the wind back to GoldRiver. No one there knew what was going on down the sound except for the DFO, which had radio contact with Thorburn, and the DFO wasn’t talking. I found out later what happened.

Far out in the windblown sound, Luna had left the canoes to play with a fishing boat and had followed it partway back to GoldRiver. Thorburn then led him the rest of the way, right through a log-boom barrier up to the pen.

Thorburn had once talked to Suzanne and me about leading Luna into the pen. “That’s a lot of credibility I’m going to lose with him,” he said. “I feel guilty now, and I haven’t even done it. But I’d rather have him back with his pod, that’s my whole reason.”

Now the moment had come: Thorburn moved his boat slowly into the pen. Luna followed. Then the whale veered away. Thorburn did it all again. Again, Luna veered away.

This went on for about an hour. During that time the native canoe was towed home around the end of the GoldRiver dock.

Late in the afternoon, Luna trusted Thorburn enough to follow him all the way into the pen, then rested against the Zodiac and another boat.

As we watched, members of the capture team climbed onto the pen and tiptoed around its edges, and took up positions on its perimeter. Two men grabbed the rope designed to pull up a net at the entrance and trap Luna permanently. The drama was over.

Or was it? Moving slowly, almost nonchalantly, Luna slipped out of the pen.

We thought Thorburn and his team would just lead him back in. But then a different sound came into the air. Into the teeth of the wind, the natives were again singing.

Slowly, pitching into the chop, two canoes came around the corner of the GoldRiver dock. As they did, there was another sound. People from the town of Gold River, including many from the First Nation band, had come down to the dock, and now as the natives emerged for one last try, the people on the dock cheered.

And Luna? Did he hear the songs, or the paddles, or the sound of the cheers? All I knew then was that he’d moved away from the pen and gone underwater. I watched and watched the surface, along with everyone else. Then I saw him leap out of the water to join the Mowachaht/Muchalaht natives in Nootka Sound.

The attempts to catch Luna went on for two more days, but the steam had gone out of the effort. By the end of the week, the DFO started folding its nets. It was clear, Thorburn said later, “if we were going to do it, it would have to be with the cooperation of the First Nation people.” “There are no winners and losers here,” Maquinna said in a speech to his people. “There is an education that’s happened. The nonnative community has come to understand that we are strong spiritually and have a living culture.”

Over the next weeks and months, Luna went back to what he’d been doing for three years: eating well, traveling the sound, trying to hang out with people, being something of a pest. In September, the DFO and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht people signed an agreement allowing the band to prevent anyone from interacting with Luna. Advocacy groups still promote a reunion.

But there has been a change. After the weeks of play and intense companionship with his old friend Thorburn and his new friends in the canoes, Luna has been left almost alone for months, and he appears to be trying harder to contact boats and the people in them. The press has lately carried stories of boats that Luna has, in the reporters’ word, “attacked.” Several rudders have been broken, and some people are demanding that he be removed.

Luna is stuck in a Catch-22. He learned how good companionship can be, but his friends have gone. So he demands attention from people who don’t want to give it. And the people who do want to give it will face charges if they try.

One day after the capture was canceled, Suzanne and I went out to the bay, where Luna first appeared and where he still spends most of his time. We sat on a rock and watched him rolling in the sun.

As we watched, I thought of all the times that the press had described him as “the lonely orca.” But that’s not the whole story either.

Though most people believe that Luna would be best off with his family, there remains a gulf between people, as deep as Nootka Sound. The natives believe Luna should make his own choices; many others think people should make decisions for him. The difference challenges how we all think about animals.

Yet in one fundamental way the paddlers’ bravery against the wind to keep Luna free was no different from Ed Thorburn’s determination to move him to his pod. Natives or not, in the past centuries we have all built distance between ourselves and the rest of life. Now the great wild world never glances our way. But when an animal like Luna breaks through and looks us in the eye, we cannot breathe.

And so we become desperate to keep these wild beings alive. Please do not leave us, Luna. We are the lonely ones.

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