Tag Archives: Luna

Springer, once a lonely orphan, gives birth to her second baby orca

Springer, the killer whale, has borne a second calf some 15 years after she was rescued as a young orphan swimming alone near Vashon Island in Puget Sound.

Springer with her new calf in Canadian waters.
Photo: Lisa Spaven, DFO, Canada

Springer’s rescue and return to her family in British Columbia is one of the all-time-great orca stories. It was a privilege to be a news reporter in 2001 when I was able to break the news of the lonely orca and follow the rescue effort in Puget Sound.

After Springer was found swimming dangerously close to the Vashon-Fauntleroy ferry lanes, officials with NOAA Fisheries and other organizations put together a rescue plan. The young animal was identified as a member of the Northern Resident killer whales, a group that never comes as far south as Puget Sound. Experts believe that Springer’s mother had died and the young animal wandered all the way to Puget Sound.

Springer was captured and placed under medical care at NOAA’s Manchester Lab in South Kitsap. She gained weight and became healthier before she was moved by jet catamaran some 300 miles north to Telegraph Cove near the northern end of Vancouver Island, B.C. After her release, she was soon reunited with other members of her family, as later described in a NOAA video (posted on this page).

Orphan Orca, Saving Springer from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

“Springer’s story is an inspiration on many levels,” said Paul Spong of OrcaLab in a news release. “It proved that an orphan orca, alone and separated from her family, can be rehabilitated and returned to a normal productive life with her family and community; and it showed that disparate parties with diverse interests can come together and work together for the common goal of helping one little whale.”

Springer’s newest calf was spotted June 5 by folks at CetaceaLab on B.C.’s north central coast. The birth was confirmed by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Springer and her first calf Spirit, born in 2013, remain healthy, observers say. They are most often seen in northern British Columbia, visiting Johnstone Strait at times during in the summer.

News of the new birth comes just in time for the 15th anniversary celebration of Springer’s rescue. The event, called “Celebrate Springer,” will be held next weekend in Telegraph Cove. The public is invited to the festivities, including a slide show, “Springer’s Story,” Saturday at 11 a.m. featuring members of Springer’s rescue team. A panel discussion will follow. A new Telegraph Cove Whale Trail sign will be dedicated at 4 p.m., followed by a salmon dinner on the boardwalk at 5:30 p.m.

“We can hardly believe it has been 15 years since Springer was reunited with her family,” said Mary Borrowman, director of the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove. “The most exciting news is the confirmation that Springer has had another calf, and we hope we will be fortunate enough to see this famous mother with her family this summer.”

Lynne Barre of NOAA’s regional office in Seattle said partnerships developed during Springer’s rescue are enduring and demonstrate how federal agencies can work with state, tribal and nonprofit groups to help both Northern and Southern Resident killer whales.

“The Springer success story continues to be an inspiration for all of us working on conservation in the Salish Sea,” Barre said.

“Springer’s reunion is an unqualified success — the only project of its kind in history,” said Donna Sandstrom, director of The Whale Trail and co-organizer of the “Celebrate Springer” event. “To get the little whale home, we had to learn how to work together, as organizations, agencies and nations…. We hope her story inspires people to join us in working on issues facing our endangered Southern Resident orcas today, with the same urgency, commitment, and resolve.”

For additional information, check out the Springer Facebook page.

As much as Springer’s story is one of cooperation and success, her rescue will always be linked in my mind to the tragic death of Luna, another young orca who was orphaned at the same time.

Springer, as we’ve said, was born among the Northern Resident killer whales, which stay mostly in northern British Columbia. At the same time that Springer was lost and alone in Puget Sound, Luna, a Southern Resident, was lost and alone in Nootka Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, my initial report on the situation featured both young orcas in a front-page story in the Kitsap Sun. The coincidence of two orphans at once is next to unbelievable, considering that orphan killer whales are practically unheard of.

Much has been written about the failed rescue of Luna, which I covered at the time. A full-length documentary was later released by filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. See my review of “The Whale,” originally called “Saving Luna.”

Luna never made it back to his family. He eventually died after being sucked into the propeller of a powerful tugboat.

Before Luna’s death, Parfit wrote about Lunda for Smithsonian magazine. It was a story that I had pieced together over several weeks as a series of newspaper stories. Mike and Suzanne stayed around Nootka Sound to obtain a fuller story for their film.

The greatest lesson from the Luna story may be similar to the one we learned from Springer, that cooperation is the key and that every detail must be considered before the rescue begins.

‘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.

“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.

New movie about Luna ready for Seattle release

UPDATE: Aug. 30, 2011

The world premiere of “The Whale” took place Aug. 20 in the Faroe Islands, where promoters hoped they could encourage changes in a long tradition of hunting pilot whales. Check out reports on “The Whale” website and a blog entry by Leah Lemieux, author of “Rekindling the Waters.”

U.S. openings of the film are scheduled for Sept. 9 at SIFF Cinema in Seattle and The Grand Cinema in Tacoma, followed by openings in New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C. See the film’s screenings page.

It appears that the much-anticipated movie about Luna, the killer whale, will soon be released in Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C., according to an e-mail from the filmmakers, Suzanne Chisholm, Mike Parfit, and David Parfit. A new trailer for “The Whale” (view below) was recently released.

Luna was a 2-year-old male orca who belonged to the Southern Resident community of whales that frequent the Salish Sea. He somehow became separated from his family and took up an isolated existence in Nootka Sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Suzanne Chisholm and Mike Parfit spent months filming Luna and eventually produced an independent film called “Saving Luna.” But they were unable to gain mass distribution for the award-winning film until actor-producer Ryan Reynolds took an interest.

From their e-mail:

The Whale is a new film, narrated by Ryan Reynolds. Like the movie Saving Luna, it also tells the story of Luna. In some ways you could say that The Whale is based on Saving Luna, which won 25 awards from around the world. But has been completely re-edited, re-written, and newly narrated to make it clear and accessible to an international audience of all ages.

“Our executive producers, Ryan Reynolds, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Desatnik, have given us terrific feedback and suggestions for how to streamline and improve the storytelling, and we have added a significant amount of new footage as well. But, to reassure those who love the original film, it has not been turned into something crassly Hollywood. The same basic creative team has been at the heart of the new movie, and we are very happy about how it has turned out.”

The release date and advance theaters have not yet been announced.

Mike wrote an article for the July-August issue of Smithsonian magazine explaining how the project would not have come together without new digital film technology.

I’ve written before about my coverage of Luna’s story for the Kitsap Sun — including a trip to Nootka Sound, where I met Suzanne and Mike. By the time I arrived, they had made real connections with the local residents of the area — largely, I think, because they did not impose themselves on others the way some people with video cameras will do.

I was chosen by the Canadian government to be the U.S. pool reporter for print media. I was given special access to cover the effort to capture Luna and return him to his family in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A Water Ways entry on Aug. 10, 2010, updates the Luna film project and includes links to the stories I wrote.

One segment of the film (click here to view) talks about people’s desire to touch Luna, who would come alongside boats and docks and practically beg to be petted. My wife Sue, who had come with me to help out, loves animals of all kinds. A few times we were down on the docks in the evening when Luna swam up. I followed the government’s orders not to interact with Luna, who had already become “habituated” to humans, as they say. I also would not allow Sue to approach him, though it killed her to be so close and not get even closer.

“You need to stay back,” I told her. “I can see the stories now: ‘Reporter’s wife arrested for petting a whale, while he covers the story about people illegally petting the whale.’”

It was an unusual story, all the way around, and I look forward to the film version of “The Whale.” Developments can be followed on Facebook.

Luna’s story gets Hollywood makeover

The cinematic story of Luna, the killer whale, is undergoing a Hollywood makeover before its official release in U.S. theaters a few months from now.

Luna, the killer whale
Photo by Christopher Dunagan

Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, who filmed and produced the original documentary, “Saving Luna,” seem thrilled to be working with big-name actors Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, another husband-wife team. Reynolds and Johansson will serve as executive producers for the revised version of the film, to be called “The Whale.”

“Ryan and Scarlett are both amazing in the range of their abilities,” Parfit told reporter Michael Reid of the Victoria Times Colonist. “It’s not as if they’re strictly pop culture people. They had so much respect for our vision. It’s been another of those creative joys.”

The original documentary, “Saving Luna,” won numerous awards at independent film festivals across the U.S. and Canada and even overseas, but the film has never been widely released in U.S. theaters or made available on DVD.

The new version shifts away from some of the politics at the time, which involved how Luna should be treated and whether he should be captured in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and brought back to Puget Sound. Apparently, the new focus heightens the theme of friendship between Luna and local residents of Nootka Sound, where he suddenly appeared one day in the summer of 2001.

To view the trailer and other information about the film, go to the official website for “The Whale.”

Luna’s story is one I chronicled for the Kitsap Sun over a period of several years. In fact, I was the first reporter to break the news that the two-year-old killer whale had been spotted in Nootka Sound after being separated from his Puget Sound family and presumed dead. Amazingly, this was at the same time that another young killer whale — Springer, whose family lived Northern British Columbia— was found alone and swimming in the ferry lane between Seattle and Vashon Island.
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Orca matriarch in K pod apparently has died

“One of the two oldest killer whales among the Puget Sound pods is missing and presumed dead.

“At an estimated 98 years old, K-7, nicknamed “Lummi,” was the oldest female in K pod and the recognized leader of the 20 whales in the group…

L-7, known as \"Lummi\" is missing and presumed dead. Photo by Aileen Ly
L-7, known as Lummi is missing and presumed dead.
Photo by Aileen Ly

“(Ken) Balcomb (of the Center for Whale Research) said Tuesday’s encounter with L pod failed to turn up another missing whale, L-101 or “Aurora.” This 6-year-old animal is the brother of L-98, “Luna” — the orca that gained fame when he spent several years alone in Canada’s Nootka Sound, where he was killed by a boat propeller in 2006.

“Balcomb said he can’t rule out the possibility that Aurora is following the example of his older brother, living alone in some isolated bay.”

This is a small part of a larger story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network wrote a tribute to L-7 that I’d like to share, with his permission:

We don’t really know how important K7 was to her extended family these past nine or ten decades. We do know that K7 was a great-great grandmother since 2004 when her great granddaughter K20 gave birth to her great-great grand son or daughter, K38. But there’s no hard evidence to tell us how orcas treat each other or how their roles develop as they grow in wisdom over the years.

After over 32 years of continuous studies based on Jane Goodall’s method called individual recognition, the research community believes that older females guide the entire clan and pass their deep knowledge of habitat and family traditions on to younger generations. K7, aka Lummi, was estimated to be the very oldest of them all. Her calculated birthdate was 1910, making her 98 years old this year, which is essentially equal to J2 (Granny), who lives on at about 97 years old. The next oldest is L25 (Ocean Sun), est. born in 1928, and three other females who were given a birthdate of 1933. J2 and K7 were definitely the elder females of the clan, and now only J2 can be considered to have the longest life and experience among the Southern Resident orca community.

We can only surmise how the other members of her family behaved and felt toward K7. We know that, like humans, females often live on for decades after having their last offspring at around age 40, so it is believed that these mature females must be highly valued by their families for their knowledge of fluctuations in habitat and where and how to find abundant food. But we also know that the Southern Residents’ entire vocal and behavioral repertoires are completely unique and distinct from all other orca societies, and presumably it’s the grandmother class that carries and transmits all these calls, rules, attitudes and traditions to the younger generations.

When every aspect of life, from when and what to eat, when to mate (and with whom), when not to mate, when to split up and travel and when to meet and greet and throw a party, are all determined according to cultural norms, clearly some individuals must play the part of respected guides and mentors.

But our understanding of all those mysterious and intricate interrelationships will have to remain in the realm of informed speculation, because we have no idea what they are saying to one another, and to date there have been no clear observations of discipline or jousting for dominance, or forced behavior of any kind (except when moms corral or command their young ones), and unlike the scars found on humpbacks and sperm whales, there’s no sign that they fight at all.

It’s apparently all done with subtle suggestions based on the profound influence of the longest-lived, most richly experienced females. K7 must have been highly regarded as one of the most reliable sources of traditional knowledge among Southern Resident orcas. May she be remembered respectfully and fondly by humans and orcas alike.