Saturday, March 11, 2006

Luna: rest in peace

[Associated Press photo]

Most of the whale-advocacy community in the Northwest is in mourning today in the wake of the news that Luna, a K pod whale who managed to get socially stranded in a west Vancouver Island sound, had been killed:
One minute Luna was frolicking around the back of a boat, as he did routinely in an attempt to secure the companionship he craved.

The next minute, he was sucked into a tube containing a propeller powered by a 1,700-horsepower engine. It chopped the whale into bits. Until authorities recovered a large piece of the carcass, they were unsure they would even be able to positively identify the creature.

Luna, as Robert McClure's excellent story explains, was separated from the rest of his pod back in spring of 2001, when he turned up in Nootka Sound alone. The 1-year-old began socializing with boaters in the sound, sometimes to the extent of harassing them and endangering himself in the process. Eventually, there were concerns that the fishermen he angered might shoot him.

Whale biologists, having successfully reunited another stranded youngster named Springer with her northern resident pod, were hopeful they could do the same with Luna. But the plans to do so also raised concerns that the end result could be his incarceration in an aquarium:
With help offered by U.S. officials and conservationists on both sides of the border, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans came up with a plan to capture Luna and transport him back to be with his family -- just as the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service recaptured Springer, an orca from a Canadian pod that turned up alone near Vashon Island at about the same time.

But it was not to be. DFO officials had failed to consult closely with the local natives, or First Nations as they're known in Canada, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht -- who have long been angry at DFO because of its advocacy of salmon aquaculture in the area.

And the natives had come to believe that Luna embodied the spirit of their chief Ambrose Maquinna, who died just days before the orca showed up.

When the DFO-sponsored capture was about to take place, members of the tribe showed up in canoes and lured the creature away from a pen in the water where DFO officials were trying to lure him. The Canadian government gave up on the recapture plan.

I'm sure that there will be a temptation to blame the tribes for the disaster, since it was their interference that prevented the DFO from reuniting Luna with his family. But the situation is more complex than that, because their concerns that Luna might wind up in a concrete tank were not entirely groundless. Nor, for that matter, were their claims of an apparent spiritual connection with the young orca, which included some claims that he was the reincarnation of a just-departed chief.

Last summer, I attended a presentation by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, who were spending their days monitoring Luna and recording his activities, as well as working tirelessly to protect him from harm.

Parfit and Chisholm had filmed Luna's odyssey with the tribal canoes away from the DFO capture team, and it was really rather remarkable to watch how closely the orca seemed to bond with the tribe. At a couple of junctures in the drama, Luna actually was within the capture area, and on both occasions he decided to return to his friends in the canoes. He traveled with them some 20 kilometers away to the site of their original village, and some of their interactions en route were something to behold.

So was some of the other footage that Parfit and Chisholm had collected. The one that really struck me involved some of his boat nudging; at one point, they caught Luna rising to the surface and pushing a small outboard boat at its transom, right next to the motor, which was turned off.

As he nudged the skiff forward, he began making a noise through his blowhole -- PBBBBBTTTTTTTTTT -- that almost perfectly replicated the sound of an outboard engine. It was simultaneously charming and disturbing, like watching a little kid who had a preternatural fascination with heavy equipment climbing aboard a bulldozer and firing it up.

As a feature in the Kitsap Sun explained, Parfit and Chisholm hoped to organize an effort to both better protect Luna during his stay at Nootka Sound and to reunite him with his K pod family, part of the endangered southern resident population of Puget Sound.

It seemed like a sound idea: organizing a group of volunteer boaters who could provide Luna with social opportunities while keeping him out of the way of propellers and angry fishermen, and who could then help lead him out of the sound and into the same waters as his family if they ever passed by on the western side of Vancouver Island, something they periodically are known to do during the winter and early spring months.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy being what it is, their proposal was still being processed by the DFO when Luna was killed. It didn't have to be that way. But inaction is sometimes so much easier than action, and it can have tragic consequences.

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