Luna: A Whale to Watch

The true story of a lonely orca leaps from printed page to silver screen, with a boost from new technology

Luna sought the company of humans on Nootka Sound. (Fred Lazuk)
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For Suzanne and me, too, it would have been impossible to make our movie without the new digital tools, though unlike Longley, who planned his Iraq film in great detail, we had no idea in the beginning that we were even shooting a movie.

At first we used a couple of little cameras the same way we might use a notebook or a tape recorder—to store information for the article. But when the events that we wrote about in Smithsonian appeared in our lenses, we started to think that the digital tapes we had just been tossing in a drawer might be important.

Like Longley, we spent far more time on our story than we ever expected. The low cost of equipment allowed us to stay on Nootka Sound and spend the time seeing things that a rush job would never have allowed.

Slowly we learned the patterns of Luna’s life—where he would go; the boats and people he seemed to like best; the many ways he tried to communicate, from whistles and squeaks to imitations of boat motors to slapping the water and looking in people’s eyes; and how he would often roll on his back and wave one pectoral flipper in the air for no reason we could detect.

Once, we were motoring around a point of land in our ancient inflatable boat, wondering where Luna was. We came upon a barge anchored near the shore that seemed to have an out-of-control fire hose squirting water straight up into the air like a fountain gone berserk.

When we got closer we discovered that the crew had turned the fire hose on in the water, where it lashed around like a huge spitting serpent. But it was under control—Luna’s. There he was, repeatedly coming up out of the depths to catch the thrashing hose in his mouth near its nozzle. He was making the fountain himself, waving the plume of water around, spraying us and the guys on the barge, all of us soaked and laughing.

Without the freedom of time given by the low cost of equipment, we would not even have been there to see the Luna fountain. Not only that, but on a similar occasion, when Luna tossed a load of water right on our unprotected camera with his tail, the low cost saved us—we could afford a replacement.

Months passed. Then a year. I broke away from Nootka Sound for a few weeks to do a couple of magazine stories to pay the bills. Eventually, as threats to Luna grew from a few disgruntled fishermen who had their sport interrupted by his attentions, we spent more and more time on the water trying to keep him away from trouble, filming when we could.

Finally an editor who commissions projects at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation saw some of our clips and gave us financial support to do a 42-minute television show for the CBC’s cable news channel. We were delighted. By then it had been nearly two years since we had agreed to do the magazine story. We had 350 hours of footage.

And then one morning we got a call we could not bear to believe. Luna had been killed by a tugboat propeller. Vancouver Island’s biggest paper, the Victoria Times-Colonist, published several photographs and some fine articles that said farewell.


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