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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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.”


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