Globe and Mail
April 06, 2004
VANCOUVER -- Luna, the young West Coast killer whale that left his pod for a busy Vancouver Island harbour, will take a long, pricey truck ride this spring back to his estranged relatives.
The goal is to get the 750-kilogram orca out of Nootka Sound, where the playful whale has become a nuisance to boats and planes in the nearby harbour, about 230 kilometres north of Victoria. The plan was announced yesterday by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Vancouver Aquarium.
The reunification will be costly; at least $550,000 to scoop Luna from the water, put the male orca in a specialized sleeve, then transport the animal by truck to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. There, the whale will be held in a bay near the Juan de Fuca Strait, the body of water that divides Vancouver Island from Washington state, and where Luna's pod arrives each June.
When the group of whales arrives, Luna will be released to join up with them. The planned capture date is May 15.
Nearly half of the reunification costs will come from taxpayers on both sides of the border; Canadian and U.S. federal fisheries departments will chip in about $260,000 combined. It's hoped that private donations will cover the balance.
It will mark the second time that scientists attempt to bring a stranded West Coast killer whale back to its family. In 2001, a sickly, orphaned female whale was plucked from the waters off Seattle and taken to kin off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. That whale, dubbed Springer, was spotted last fall still swimming with the pod.
The Springer rescue eventually cost nearly $800,000, much of which was covered by donations.
But Luna's journey home could be more bumpy -- and not just because of the five-hour truck drive. While Springer was literally stranded in U.S. waters after her mother died, Luna appears to have left on his own, highly unusual for a killer whale. In the 2˝ years since arriving in the harbour, the orca has never tried to swim back to the open ocean.
If anything, the four-year-old orca prefers the busy goings-on of harbour life. The whale has no fear of people and is regularly spotted rubbing against boats and floatplanes. But Luna's sociability, which at first enthralled townspeople and even drew tourists to the tiny former mill town of Gold River, eventually wore thin.
Fisheries officials worried that Luna would one day flip a boat or plane. Last fall, the whale jammed a boat's rudder, stranding its passengers.
The decision to reunite Luna with his family was a tricky one for federal fisheries officials. Until last fall, the government said it wasn't in the business of saving stranded marine mammals.
But once the United States stepped up, Canada agreed, too. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service justified the move by folding the plan into its marine conservation and research program. Under the plan, U.S. scientists will put a tracing tag on one of Luna's dorsal fins to track the whale.
Luna belongs to the whale group known as southern resident killer whales. Their summer range takes them up and down the U.S. and Canadian coasts, but scientists don't know for sure where they winter. They've been spotted in waters off California and as far north as Alaska. If Luna's reunification is successful, the tag will provide scientists with the first clue to the species' wintering grounds.
Despite best intentions, there's no guarantee the plan will succeed.
"Success isn't only rejoining the pod," Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokeswoman Marilyn Joyce said. "If Luna does not join his pod . . . but he's able to remain a wild whale swimming around in his natural environment, then we're happy with that too."
Once free in the Juan de Fuca Strait, scientists say Luna could take up to a week or longer to join his kin. Luna's mother is still alive, but has given birth to another calf.
Some whale experts have said there's a chance Luna's mother won't even recognize her offspring.
One of the problems for scientists is that no one knows why Luna left his pod in the first place. Killer whale pods are tightly knit communities, with virtually no immigration or emigration. And while it's rare for a whale to leave, it's just as rare for a pod to accept an outsider whale. There's a concern Luna will show no desire to hook up with his pod even if the whale is deposited in the very same waters.
Despite the happy ending to the Springer saga in 2001, the orca's first few days with her pod were dicey -- even dangerous. The female whale was attacked by the other whales and her body was strafed with teeth marks.
Despite the uncertainty, Luna has clearly overstayed his welcome in Gold River, as his manner eventually turned him into a side-show. People lined the dock to watch him swim and dive, taking pictures and tossing cookies into his gaping maw. Last year, a woman was fined $100 for petting the whale.
But research scientist Lance Barrett-Lennard is optimistic about Luna's chances. "We think he's robust enough to come through with flying colours."