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A Tragic Love Story Between a Friendly Orca and his Human Neighbors

Book Review: The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna

Luna was a small (which means still rather large) young orca separated from his pod and mother, who began to come up to boats and people in a manner that could only be characterized as “friendly.” Which astonished a number of people around the British Columbia community in Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  Orcas, also known as killer whales, are well known in these waters but they generally skirted or ignored boats and people. Not Luna.

A pod of ocras in the wildPhoto by Thomas on FlickrWild orcas, like this pod photographed off the Vancouver coast, are highly social animals and essentially spend their entire lives with their family. Luna, who was separated from his family, craved company.

Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm fell into the story of Luna when they heard rumors of a friendly orca whale that could be touched, played with, and seemed himself fascinated with people. (Parfit and Chisholm have also made a documentary about Luna entitled The Whale.)  In this very wild country, where most travel is by boat or float plane, a large wild animal exhibiting friendly behavior was a novelty.

It was also, as it turned out, a tragedy.

In The Lost Whale, Parfit and Chisholm record in detail the history of Luna’s visits with humans, hanging around boats and even harbors, with many admiring humans wanting to play with him and touch him. The government fisheries agents, responsible for Luna and other marine mammals as well as the safety of the public, had a difficult role in this affair. They want to protect both people and Luna, but how do you do that when both parties want to come together for seemingly innocuous play? How can the government people trying to intervene be anything less than “the bad guys” in this scenario?

Also involved were native groups, who come to see Luna as an important symbol of their heritage and beliefs.  As well as several scientists who came to observe and try to explain Luna and what was happening in Nootka Sound.

This volatile mix exploded when fisheries officials decided they should try to capture Luna and perhaps bring him into contact with other wild orcas so he could rejoin his family pod (wild orcas essentially spend their entire lives with their family).  Some suspected they would wind up bringing Luna into a life of captivity in a small tank in a marine park somewhere. The proposal brought on a lot of opposition, including attempts to directly interfere in the capture plans.  The capture was eventually aborted, as Luna was not particularly cooperative in swimming into the nets set out to corral him. 

The Lost Whale is illustrated by many beautiful photos of Luna and the people who cared about him. The lyrical narrative will certainly encourage you to visit British Columbia and its small towns and experience its wild beauty.

Parfit and Chisholm raise many questions about just what Luna meant to the local people who encountered him. That people would feel wonder and joy at meeting such a congenial member of an elusive whale species that always before kept its distance is not hard to understand, but people’s feelings seemed to go a lot deeper.  Many struggled to tell Parfit and Chisholm how they felt about Luna.  And the authors interviewed everybody:  boatmen, tourists, fishermen, government officials, tribal leaders, scientists, and many others.  All had deep feelings and questions, with few answers.

That the story of Luna ends badly is an unfortunate indictment of our continuing battle with wild nature. Even in situations like Luna’s, where everyone wanted the best for the little lost whale, our human activities and long reach into wild places continues to wreak havoc.  This is the biggest question raised by The Lost Whale:  How can we ever coexist with wildlife?

 

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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Comments

what happened to Luna?

By juan on Sun, March 02, 2014 at 10:27 pm

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