The Whale They Couldn't Catch

Before Chief Ambrose MaQuinna of the Mawachaht/Muchalaht people died in early July of 2001, he said he would like to be reborn as an orca whale. Within days of his passing, a rambunctious young male orca appeared in Gold River, tucked inside Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island, Canada.

The whale was soon identified as L-98, or Luna, son of Splash (L-67), one of the 87 highly endangered southern resident orcas who spend their summers off the San Juan Islands of Washington (on the east side of Vancouver Island). But to the native people, he embodied the spirit of their chief.

Although separated from his family, Luna was healthy and friendly to human beings. He would greet people in their boats, sometimes rubbing against their hulls. Apparently disliking fish finder pingers, he pursued boats that turned them on and nipped off the emitters when the boats docked. But the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) rejected requests from some whale huggers that they help return Luna to his family.

That changed when application was made to place a score of highly controversial and polluting salmon aquaculture operations in Nootka Sound. Suddenly, the DFO decided that Luna was a "problem animal" who needed to be "rescued" for "public safety" reasons. The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed and offered to help move Luna.

On April 5, 2004, the Canadian and US agencies agreed on a plan. First they would try to lure Luna to the opening of Nootka Sound in time to reunite with his passing family. If that failed, the Vancouver Aquarium team would capture Luna and truck him to a sea pen on the east side of Vancouver Island to wait until his family came by. A satellite/vhf transmitter would be clamped to his dorsal fin using titanium bolts in case Luna became a "problem animal" again and would need to be re-captured or shot.

On June 15, the natives paddled out in two canoes to warn the whale. The new Chief (Mike) Maquinna's daughter Marsha held her hands out from the boat. Luna came and put his head between them and stayed for minutes, deeply touching the paddlers with the connection between the girl and her "grandfather."

The next day, an aquarium team of 25 gathered to capture Luna. Despite the threat of huge fines for interference, the native canoes were out again—doing their best to lead Luna away from the pen. Over and over, the paddlers sang to Luna and tapped their paddles against their dugout canoes to call him toward them and away from the three big inflatables the DFO capture team were using. Luna would follow the capture boats for a time and then break away, rush to join the canoes, breach in greeting and snuggle the paddlers.

After days of this cat and mouse game, the DFO was quickly losing patience. On the afternoon of June 22, they got Luna to enter the pen but couldn't quite shut the door before he wiggled free.

Finally, the combined force of the Canadian and US governments gave up in the face of determined opposition from the Mawachaht/Muchalaht and Luna himself. The band celebrated and offered to lead Luna by canoe around the southern part of Vancouver Island to rejoin his family without all of the capture, trucking and tagging circus. AWI supports this obvious solution although to date it hasn't come about. In September, the band reached an agreement with DFO to monitor and protect Luna in Nootka Sound, where he remains today, swimming free.

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