Close Encounters

Northwest of Seattle, an overly friendly orca polarizes a community

Two killer whales
Wikimedia Commons

For much of Luna the orca's excellent adventure ("Whale of a Tale"), Mike Parfit and his wife, Suzanne, a photographer, were the only journalists actually out on Nootka Sound, 250 miles from Seattle on Canada's Pacific Coast. It was there that Luna had settled in, nuzzling boats and putting on a playful show. Over a period of several months, the Parfits would zoom along in their boat, a Zodiac, getting as close as legally possible to the whale—the Canadian government had imposed a 500-meter buffer zone—then jump out onto a rock, set up a tripod and watch the action through telephoto lenses. After some days of this, indigenous natives, who call themselves the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, gave Parfit a nickname. Finally, one of them explained that a mink dashes from one side of the river to another, then stands up on a rock to look around, then dashes off again. "So now when I see one of the natives, I'm greeted, 'Hey, Mink!'"

One afternoon Parfit had his own close encounter of the Luna kind. He was approaching the dock when the Zodiac suddenly shifted direction. "And there was Luna, his broad back right next to me, pushing on the side of the boat." Parfit shut down the engine, and Luna nudged the boat over, allowing Parfit to jump out and tie up. He then watched the whale push the Zodiac back and forth on its bowline for about half an hour, until another boat got Luna's attention.

Parfit says that working on this story reminded him just how unexpected journalism can be—and how important it is to plan for contingencies. "Suzanne and I stashed some fuel at a marina about 15 miles from our base. We also hauled a tent, food, water and equipment up a hill overlooking a holding pen in the water."

On the day that wildlife authorities planned to capture Luna, Parfit took his wife to the tent on the hill, then waited near the Zodiac for the excitement to begin. When, unexpectedly, natives showed up in canoes and began leading Luna away, a surprised Parfit joined the chase. "I had no food or water in the boat and not much fuel," he says. "The natives led Luna for miles, as I followed, and I would never have been able to get back except for the can of gas we'd stashed at the marina. Meanwhile, Suzanne was stuck up on the hill with nothing to watch except a group of baffled scientists pacing around. So the more elaborate of our plans had not been useful, but the contingency planning saved the day. And the story had changed completely."

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