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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

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.

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