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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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.


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