Victoria Times Colonist
June 17, 2004
GOLD RIVER -- Two traditional Nuu-chah-nulth canoes carrying chanting, drumming members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations led Luna the killer whale out of the Gold River area Wednesday, delaying efforts by federal and Vancouver Aquarium scientists' to capture him.
Luna followed the canoes about 30 kilometres up Muchalat Inlet, away from the area where a net pen has been set up to hold him.
Marilyn Joyce, marine mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, would not confirm Wednesday evening whether the capture plan would go ahead today.
The canoes glided down the Gold River estuary Wednesday morning and into the inlet after band members camped out overnight at the boat launch. They were joined by Luna less than an hour after setting off on what could turn into a marathon canoe trip.
Joyce downplayed the delay and said capture crews simply needed more time to practise. "When we are ready to capture the whale we are quite confident that we can lead Luna back into the general area," said Joyce.
She said she understands the cultural significance of the whale to the First Nations, but she is concerned about the safety of the 17 canoeists and the increasing human contact with Luna.
"I would like to meet with Chief (Michael) Maquinna to explain our concerns ... and to understand what the actions (Wednesday) were all about," she said.
The Mowachaht/Muchalaht believe the four-year-old orca contains the spirit of their former chief Ambrose Maquinna.
The chief died about one week before Luna first appeared in Nootka Sound three years ago. Shortly before his death, Ambrose Maquinna said he would like to return as a killer whale.
The band has consistently opposed the plan to capture the whale, put him in a net pen and truck him down Vancouver Island to Pedder Bay in Metchosin, where it is hoped he will reunite with his pod.
Chief Michael Maquinna said he has reiterated that the band wants nature to take its course and for Luna to be left in Nootka Sound, but that DFO has refused to listen.
Joyce said she has met regularly with Maquinna, but was not aware the Mowachaht/Muchalaht intended to lead the whale away. "It may be part of their traditional ceremonies. He will follow any boat," she said.
Maquinna said the plan is to keep the canoes out on the water for as long as Luna will stay. Small boats are ferrying supplies and clean clothes to the paddlers.
"We are going to be in contact with the whale, singing songs and leading him into the deeper waters and hopefully we can keep him there. I don't know how long it will take," he said.
The previous evening, Maquinna said he would like to keep the whale out of the net pen until the $500,000 budget for moving the whale, provided by DFO and the U.S. government, is exhausted.
Support for the Mowachaht/Muchalaht plan has come from the First Nations Summit, said Maquinna, who contacted the Summit a week ago, before his plan was made public.
By early afternoon, the two canoes were joined by a handful of other power boats from nearby First Nations, including the Hesquiaht fisheries vessel.
Maquinna said he takes little joy from the success of the plan as it would have been better if it had not been necessary. He said he does not know what will happen if DFO enforces rules that forbid anyone to touch the whale and provide for fines of up to $100,000.
"I think they are intent on putting their plan into action. They have the manpower and money to do it," he said.
Out on the water the paddlers were photographed patting the whale and playing with his mouth.
Boomer Jerritt, a photographer working in Nootka Sound, passed by the First Nations flotilla mid-afternoon.
"Luna's looking happy," he said. "They're petting him. They're towing a dinghy and he was playing with the motor and making it bounce," he said.
Joyce said it will be up to DFO enforcement personnel whether charges are laid against those in the canoes.
But the close contact will make it more difficult to release Luna as a wild whale, she said. "We have said repeatedly that getting close to Luna is not good for Luna and it's certainly not a safe situation."
DFO planned the relocation because federal officials decided Luna, with his love of boats and people, had become a danger to himself and others, and that moving him would give him the best chance to remain wild and rejoin his pod.
However, support was growing around the village Wednesday for leaving Luna alone.
The whale has been great for business, said Remi Charette, owner of Uptown Cappuccino. "I think they should leave him here and hire someone to take care of him. Where else could Luna be safer anywhere in the world?" he said.
Steve Savola estimated the relocation money would pay for a marine biologist and boat gas for eight years.
"I think it's asinine to move him. Why not hire a babysitter?"
However, scientists say Luna is lonely, which is why he pursues boats. They say he needs the company of his own kind, especially because he comes from the endangered southern resident population of killer whales, where there is a shortage of adult males.