‘The Whale’ tells the story of Luna, the lost orca

UPDATE, Oct. 15, 2011

“The Whale” can now be seen at Lynwood Theatre on Bainbridge Island and will be screened next weekend at Clyde Theatre on Whidbey Island, the latter a benefit for Orca Network.
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“The Whale,” a long-awaited movie about a young Puget Sound orca named Luna, opened yesterday in Seattle and Tacoma before being released elsewhere in the country. Go to scheduled screenings.

It’s a beautiful film, both for its stunning photography and for its careful portrayal of the characters and situations taking place in Nootka Sound, near the northern end of Vancouver Island. Somehow, the 2-year-old killer whale became separated from his family and began living a solitary life, seeking attention from humans.

It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints. Believe me, I know because I struggled with these issues while covering the same story for the Kitsap Sun — from the time Luna first arrived in Nootka Sound until the day he died there. I served as the only pool reporter for U.S. print media during an unsuccessful attempt to capture Luna and return him to his family. But I’ve talked about this before. See Water Ways entries from July 5 of this year and Aug. 6 of last year, which includes links to my stories.

I was pleasantly surprised when I watched “The Whale” yesterday to learn that filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm did not attempt to create heroes and villains in this story. They played it straight, balancing the various opinions regarding how Luna should be managed, if that was even possible.

An unusual angle to the story was the spiritual beliefs of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht band of First Nations people, who held the view that Luna was the embodied spirit of their late chief who had died the week before Luna arrived in Nootka Sound.

Marine mammal biologist Toni Frohoff says in the film that things usually end badly for marine mammals who become habituated to humans. But, with no family around, Luna was the one who initiated contact. Most people who met Luna were convinced that he needed attention. Some chose to follow official orders and ignore him; others petted and played with him.

Were these interactions for the gratification of the people who wanted to touch a whale? Did they help this lonely orca? Or was there some mutual benefit from interspecies relations? That is the question left dangling.

Kari Koski of SoundWatch, based in the San Juan Islands, traveled to Nootka Sound to discourage people from interacting with Luna. As a “steward,” she has had far more success with people around killer whales in Puget Sound, where the orca families are large; they stay together; and they don’t usually seek human contact.

“All we were doing,” Kari says in the film, “was interacting with him in order to prevent more interactions.”

In Mike’s words, as narrated by Ryan Reynolds:

“As the stewards saw Luna in more of these situations, they came into conflict with themselves. They were trying to rebuild the wall that Luna had broken, but they loved him when he came through it.”

More than a year after the rescue attempt failed, Mike began to interact with Luna. This he admits, though his actions were contrary to official orders from the Canadian government. He had followed the rules while trying unsuccessfully to change those policies. Mike says he adopted a goal of leading Luna away from dangerous situations, including a log dump where the young whale could be hit and killed by a falling log.

But Luna’s death came anyway, four years after his arrival, when he was sucked into the propellor of a powerful tugboat.

Seattle filmmaker Michael Harris, known for his wildlife films in Puget Sound, says he will not watch “The Whale” and discourages other people from doing so. His reasons are varied, but he worries that the film will give people the idea that it is OK to interact with killer whales, something that increases the risk of their being injured or killed.

“From what we’ve seen, the narrative says all the right things about loving whales and protecting them, but the images say otherwise,” Michael told me in an e-mail. “We believe it essentially says that it’s cool for humans to play with wild whales.”

I have not heard this complaint from others, but I would welcome comments from people who have such concerns.

Michael points out that the story was different for Springer, a young female orca from the Northern Resident community of Canada who was found hanging out in the ferry lane between Vashon Island and West Seattle. It was at the same time that Luna was up north in Canada.

Interaction with Springer was discouraged, and U.S. officials moved quickly to capture her and take her back to her family near the north end of Vancouver Island. This year, marks the 10th anniversary of Springer’s reunion with her family, and Springer appears to be doing great, according to observers.

Springer’s successful reunion is not mentioned in the movie “The Whale,” but the management of her plight must be remembered as a success story. Luna’s story, on the other hand, has no happy ending, but it does help us understand the ways of killer whales, particularly those left alone for a long time. I hope “The Whale” will help us humans find better ways to handle things next time.

For more info, go to “The Whale” website.

3 thoughts on “‘The Whale’ tells the story of Luna, the lost orca

  1. Disappointing article. May I kindly remind you that Michael Harris is the President of the Orca Conservancy Board and not just a ‘wildlife filmmaker’ objecting to another film.

    Have you forgotten that he was intimately involved in the Luna project, start to finish? (I will be happy to send you news articles if need be).

    The Orca Conservancy would like to make something clear – that the organization’s objections to the film are as conservationists, perfectly in line with the consensus opinion of both the L98 (Luna) and A73 (Springer) Scientific Advisory Panels that said the only chance to get these whales repatriated is to keep them as wild as possible, and to avoid at all costs further acclimation to boats and people. Even if we THINK we know better.

    Without the authorization of DFO Canada, which Parfit and Chisholm never received, it was illegal for them to be on the water for the sole purpose of being in the vicinity of the whale.

    For WHATEVER reason — to protect him from other people, to train him to follow their boat away from trouble or maybe one day out of Nootka Sound and into waiting family, or (as is the contention of the OC) to get compelling footage for a commercial documentary.

    Forgive me for speaking out, but someone needs to. This movie and the funds being made is no different than SeaWorld or any other marine park making money at the expense of the whales involved.

    Shari Tarantino
    Orca Conservancy

  2. Shari – I’m glad you spoke up. I am not sure I understand your objection – to what?
    The movie mentioned by Chris here?
    Sharon O’Hara

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