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

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


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