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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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.


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