BOOKS / The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  April 2013:

The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna by Michael Parfit & Suzanne Chisholm St. Martin’s Press (c/o MacMillan,  175 Fifth Avenue,  New York,  NY  10010),  2013. 329 pages,  hardcover.  $25.99

The Lost Whale is a compelling story of a lost orca,  or killer whale,  who as an infant in 2001 somehow became separated from his pod,  the family that he depended on for survival. Luna the orca was one of two West Coast marine mammals of the same name who were in the news in 2001 at almost the same time.  The other,  a female dolphin was captured in January 2001 in Magdalena Bay,  of British Columbia,  and transported to the La Paz Dolphin Learning Centre,  at the La Concha Beach Resort & Condominiums,   on the Sea of Cortez. The female Luna survived among humans for just five weeks.  But the male orca Luna unexpectedly turned to humans for help,  initiating a complicated six-year relationship with the Mowachaht-Muchalaht tribal people of Nootka Sound,  on Vancouver Island near Victoria. Just south of the U.S./Canadian border is San Juan Island––so close,  in fact,  that the island was in the mid-19tth century divided into territory controlled by a fortified “American Camp” and “British Camp,” both now the names of residential developments.  In an old frame house on a bluff overlooking Friday Harbor,  the only town of size on the island,  is the Center for Whale Research.  The founding director, Ken Balcomb,  is renowned for more than 30 years of orca research and investigations of the effects of underwater sound on marine mammals. The “resident” orca population,  as the whales often seen around San Juan Island are known,   frequently depart at the onset of winter,  returning in spring,  when Balcomb’s team performs an annual census.   Between 1995 and 2001,  the “resident” orca population dropped from nearly 100 to just 78.  Luna was among the few young orcas among the pod.  When Luna was noticed to be missing,  Balcomb and others tried desperately to discover what had become of him. Nootka Sound,  where Luna turned up,  is surrounded by rugged cliffs and often swept by cold wind descending from the coastal mountains.  Here Luna first made contact with humans,  especially the Mowachaht-Muchalah,  whose recently deceased hereditary chief Ambrose Maquinna had told band members of visions in which he returned to Nootka Sound as an orca. “His antics were complicated and funny to those who watched,”  say the authors. “He would slap his pectoral fin or his tail on the water.  He would put his head straight down and stick the aft end of his body out of the water,  letting his tail flop and fly in the air like a flag.”  He pushed a log through the water. Scientists including John Ford of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans observed Luna’s behavior and debated what to do with him.  Ford had spent most of his professional life managing the orca program at the Vancouver Aquarium,  but agreed that Luna should remain a wild whale,  not be encouraged to keep entertaining visitors to Nootka Sound. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2004 attempted to lure Luna south toward the rest of his pod.  A flotilla of Mowachaht-Muchalah in dugout canoes obstructed them. The Lost Whale is a memorable tale of a wayward whale and the community that rallied to try to save him.  The effort,  unfortunately,  went for naught.  Accustomed to giving friendly bumps to boats and sea planes in Nootka Sound,  Luna on the morning of March 10,  2006 rushed toward the sea-going tug General Jackson,  with which he had often interacted in the past,  but this time miscalculated and swam into the propeller.                      ––Debra J. White

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