Luna: A Whale to Watch

Petting Luna the killer whale

Luna sought the company of humans on Nootka Sound. (Fred Lazuk)

Luna: A Whale to Watch

The true story of a lonely orca leaps from printed page to silver screen, with a boost from new technology

Smithsonian Magazine
August 2011

What if you found a story right in front of you, and it had the best real-life hero you’d ever met and a story line you could never have imagined on your own? What if it filled you with amazement and joy and sadness and hope? What if you could not resist telling everyone you met until someone said it ought to be a movie because the studios are just remaking superhero movies these days and need something fresh, and you thought, yes, that’s right?

And what if the studios weren’t interested, and you took advantage of a technological revolution and set out to make the movie yourself? Then what if, against all odds, you finished your movie and people liked it but the theaters had no interest? And what if an honest-to-goodness movie superhero came along with a green flash at the last minute to save the day?

A likely story, you think. But it happened just that way (except for the green flash) to my wife, Suzanne Chisholm, and me. It began right here in the pages of this magazine, and you should be able to see the result in theaters this summer.

People have always been driven to tell stories. But until recently, most people with stories clamoring to get out of their heads have not had access to the world’s most powerful narrative medium: movies. Moviemaking has been the almost exclusive dominion of large organizations usually driven more by profit than by stories.

But that’s changing, and there is hope right now that the technological revolution now underway may help revive a medium that even some Hollywood executives admit is growing stale.

The story that captured us was about a young killer whale, an orca. People called him Luna. Because orcas are highly social animals and Luna had found himself alone, cut off from his pod, he seemed to think he could make a life among humans. So he tried to make contact with people at docks and boats along a fjord called Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island.

I had written for Smithsonian for years, and the editors assigned me to write about this unusual cetacean character. Luna, whom the press called “the lonely orca,” had become the subject of controversy in both public and scientific arenas over what should be done with him—whether to catch him, befriend him or force people to stay away from him. A political clash over Luna’s fate between the Canadian government and a band of Native Americans was the official focus of my article. But Luna took over the story the way a great actor steals a scene.

At the time the article was published, in November 2004, no one knew what was going to happen to Luna. His apparent longing for contact brought him near dangerous propellers and a few cranky fishermen, who began to threaten to shoot him, and no one had a solution. The last lines of the article expressed our worry:

Natives or not, in the past centuries we have all built distance between ourselves and the rest of life. Now the great wild world never glances our way. But when an animal like Luna breaks through and looks us in the eye, we cannot breathe.

And so we become desperate to keep these wild beings alive.

Befriending Luna the Killer Whale

Befriending Luna the Killer Whale

How a popular Smithsonian story about a stranded orca led to a new documentary about humanity’s link to wild animals
April 13, 2008

Michael Parfit’s story “Whale of a Tale” (Smithsonian, November 2004) documented a phenomenon that was so rare and so touching it was publicized worldwide: a baby killer whale separated from its pod along the Pacific Coast befriended the people of remote Nootka Sound on the western shore of Canada’s Vancouver Island. They called him Luna.

The article ended with the attempt by the Canadian government to capture Luna and reunite him with his pod—an effort dramatically blocked by members of a Native American tribe, who rowed out in traditional canoes to intercept the government boat.

For the next two years, Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, a documentary moviemaker, continued to follow Luna and report on his astonishing impact on the community. The orca would live in the area for more than four years.

Chisholm’s and Parfit’s film, Saving Luna: The True Story of a Lone Orca, is showing at film festivals and other events around the world. See for venues and to learn more. This past March I spoke with Parfit and Chisholm, who are married, when they were in Washington D.C. to screen the movie at the Environmental Film Festival. (Yes, we know: orcas are not really whales but dolphins.)

What makes Luna unique?
Suzanne Chisholm: Killer whales are in some ways even more social than humans. They spend their entire lives together in family groups. At first, scientists didn’t believe reports that there was this baby killer whale all by himself. Because they had never recorded an event like that before, they were very skeptical that he would survive. He was just about two years old, barely weaned.

Not only did he survive, but he started to thrive. One of the ways in which he compensated for the loss of his family was interaction with people. They became his family. It’s not to say that we humans are a good replacement for whales. But he would do a lot of the things with boats or people that he would have done with other whales.

They are very tactile animals. In the wild they are always touching and bumping and swimming very close to each other. He would do that to boats, come up and rub alongside of them. He would come up to people and vocalize. He would roll over on his side and look people in the eye.

This was just for companionship?
Chisholm: When you think about our relationships with wild animals, whether it is a bear, a deer or even hummingbirds, they come to us for food. Cetaceans, the whales and the dolphins, are really the only animals that come to us strictly for companionship.

He was starting to interact a lot with boats, and people were worried for his safety. People figured he was quite lonely and would be best off with his family. He wouldn’t leave Nootka Sound, so even though conceivably his family swam on the western coast of Vancouver Island, he was isolated. They communicate with underwater calls and whistles. If he had heard his family, he might have gone back to them.

Q&A about “The Whale”

Q & A about Luna and the film

By Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, co-directors of The Whale.

Who was Luna and where was he from?

Luna was born into the Southern Resident community of orcas, which spends summers eating salmon in the Salish Sea, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean between Canada and the US. Orcas – also called killer whales – live in all the oceans in the world, but the Southern Residents are considered a distinct population. There are fewer than 90 of them, and they are endangered. Unlike some other orcas, which are known as Transients, the Resident orcas eat only fish.

Why was a male whale called Luna?

In the Salish Sea area these orcas are so well-loved that baby orcas are usually nicknamed before scientists have been close enough to them to determine gender. When Luna was born there was a naming contest. The winner wrote that the little whale should be called Luna because orcas explore the sea the way the moon explores the Earth.

Isn’t an orca actually a dolphin, not a whale?

Orcas, also called killer whales, are actually both dolphins and whales. All whales and dolphins are in the biological order of cetacea, and dolphins are in the sub-order odontoceti, also known as “toothed whales.” The toothed whales include the sperm whale, belugas, narwhals, dolphins and porpoises.

Luna was alone – but aren’t orcas always together?

Orcas who belong to the Southern Resident community never leave the family group. In fact, though they separate a bit to go fishing sometimes, basically they stay within the range of their underwater calls for life. But Luna was different. When he was less than two years old, he was somehow separated from his family, and wound up by himself in a fjord called Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, more than two hundred miles away from his family.

Why and how was Luna separated from his family?

It’s a mystery. Since Southern Resident males almost always stay with their mother’s group for their whole lives, his separation was very unusual. And it’s not likely that his family kicked him out. Nobody thinks he chose to leave, particularly since orcas have about the same lifetimes as humans, and he was just two years old. There must have been some kind of mix-up, and he just got lost. The film describes it as being like a child getting lost in a grocery store. That’s a fanciful description, but it may have felt like that to Luna. Where are they? Where did they go? Silence.

A scientist in the film says he and his colleagues thought that Luna getting lost was like “laying a baby in the forest,” and they didn’t think Luna could survive. But he managed to feed himself quite well. In fact, he got kind of tubby at times.

Was Luna fed by humans when he lived in Nootka Sound?

People sure tried to give him goodies. They threw him chocolate and oranges. Even vegetables. He spit out anything he couldn’t play with.

Fisherman would sometimes toss Luna dead fish from their fishing lines, and he’d carry them around, sticking out the side of his mouth like cigars. But he didn’t seem to eat them. He was wild, and he clearly preferred hunting for live fish. That’s what made his efforts to make contact with us so unusual. It wasn’t for food, so why did he do it? The only answer that seems to make sense is that without his family around he was, in some way different but perhaps in some way the same as us, lonely. Somehow maybe he thought we could be friends. And a lot of people thought the same thing.

Does this film say it’s good for humans interact with all wild whales?

No. Definitely not. Whales need space to travel, space to hunt for food, and space to care for their young. We don’t believe that humans should harass wildlife of any kind. The story of Luna is about friendship and respect between species, but that means contact can work only in very unusual cases. Almost always, respect for any wild animal means staying at a significant distance. With Luna we believe respect and friendship meant listening to what he seemed to be trying to say about needing contact. But in almost all other cases, friendship and respect for wild creatures means giving them the space they clearly want.

Sometimes humans can directly help wild animals, as happens when whales are tangled in nets or beached, and humans can cut them free or push them back to sea. But we strongly support guidelines developed by biologists to help people learn how far they should stay away from animals when they don’t specifically need our help. Their lives are complete, and usually they do better without us.

Isn’t it anthropomorphism to describe animals using human terms like loneliness?

Anthropomorphism means the attribution of human characteristics directly to animals. The issue of anthropomorphism is vitally important in the whole world of biology and other disciplines involving the study of animals — and in all our relationships with other species. The way scientists approach the complex ideas of what animal emotions and awareness actually are has been changing over the last thirty years, and the problem of anthropomorphism has become the subject of learned essays in major works. We can’t do that here, but this concern was critical to how we worked to tell Luna’s story — which was clearly about emotions — of some kind.

A short answer to how to evaluate anthropomorphism was given by one of our scientific advisors, Dr. Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the world’s top researchers into the nature of the dolphin and whale brain:

“It is only anthropomorphism if you are falsely attributing a human characteristics to another animal,” she said. “I think it’s the difference between saying something is the same and saying something’s on a par. Luna and other cetaceans really represent a significant challenge to us, because they are similar to us and different at the same time.”

In the film we worked very hard to establish that distinction. You may note that the narration often refers to “this thing we call friendship.” That may be a semantic gimmick, but we don’t think so. We think it helps to make it clear that though we seemed to recognize what Luna was going through, we could not say that we knew exactly what it was.

Many scientists, particularly in the new discipline of cognitive ethology, pioneered by Dr. Donald Griffin in the 1970s and practiced by highly respected scientists like Dr. Marc Bekoff, tell us that given the similar structure of many animals’ brains to ours, it would be almost impossible for them not to be feeling some emotions that may resemble ours.

Observations of behaviour repeatedly support that idea, and for us to learn about how animals think and behave, sometimes we can use careful comparison to our own experience. But with each other we recognize that sometimes the worst thing we can say is: “I know exactly how you’re feeling.” In humans that can be an insult to another person’s emotional complexity; in animals it’s inevitably inaccurate. But we also know that with friends we can empathize and share emotions even when we don’t understand all our friends’ experiences, and it is not wrong to get somewhere near that approach with animals.

So as we try to understand where they’re coming from and how they react in fear or even in something like love, the cues we get from empathy may help us at least make small steps to approach the mysteries of their undoubtedly emotional lives.

And in the case of Luna, in which an individual animal seemed clearly determined to make as much contact as possible with human beings — including frequent eye contact — it was vital to come up with some way to describe the sense of emotional engagement he seemed to need. So we reached for a way, and described it as a search for “this thing we call friendship.”

That’s as close as we thought we should get, but it was as true as we could get to what we saw happening every day. As Ryan Reynolds says in the film, “No one knew how Luna felt this connection, but he seemed to feel something, and it was strong.”

Is The Whale appropriate for children, and do they like it?

Yes to both. While The Whale was not written or edited specifically as a children’s film, it is accessible and entertaining for children.

We were initially surprised at that. We had thought it would work mainly for teenagers and up. It took a child to teach us differently. At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where we showed the original film, Saving Luna, we met a father and six-year-old child on their way into the film. We thought the child was too young, but they went on in. To our surprise the six-year-old asked a question at the Q & A and seemed very engaged. But the stunning part was that when the film was shown at the festival again three days later, the same kid was back, bringing the rest of her family! We changed our minds.

Since then both films have been shown to many children from five and up, with great success. The original film was even used in an elementary school as part of a film-festival program, and a reporter who attended the class wrote an article about how successful the program was. We have stacks of drawings by young children made because of festival showings and special showings for schools.

“Your documentary,” wrote one fifth-grade teacher, ” has had one of the most positive impacts on my students in my forty-one years of teaching.”

The family-oriented website has described the film as “heartwarming,” and “a ‘must-see’ for the entire family.” “This movie” the reviewer wrote, “will spark family conversations about right and wrong that can be teachable moments that will last a lifetime.”

We think that children particularly respond to the film because it has the emotional force of a real story rather than being lists of facts, and it does not provide answers to all the questions. Their curiosity is fed rather than ignored, and what they most want to do when the film is over is talk about Luna.

Is this the same movie as Saving Luna?

For those of you who know the film we made called Saving Luna, the short answer is that The Whale is significantly different — we think in very good ways — in terms of footage, narration, and thematic focus. For those who don’t know what Saving Luna was, here is a brief history:

Back in early 2008, we entered a film we had made about Luna in British Columbia and narrated ourselves, called Saving Luna, in the star-studded Santa Barbara International Film Festival. To our joy and surprise it was accepted, but it was not exactly a prominent film in the competition. There were 214 other fine films in the festival, many with big stars like Ryan Reynolds, and huge budgets.

Rain poured during the nights the film was on, and we thought no one would come, but they did. Then, when the sun shone at the end of the festival, our little whale film had won the biggest award: Audience Choice.

That year the film began an extraordinary journey. It was invited to festivals all over the world. It won top audience awards at the huge Middle East Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, as well as in five other places. In other festivals it won Best Documentary, Best Environmental Film, Best Storyline. Twenty-five awards in all. England, Japan, Bermuda, Canada, China, Spain, Africa, Australia.

Everywhere, people were falling in love with the little orca nicknamed Luna, whose determination to make friends with humans disturbed the established order of things.

But like most independent films, the movie was still almost unknown in the United States. We were told the film needed a recognizable voice to bring it to those audiences.

Then, in 2009, Eric Desatnik, founder of the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, discovered the film. He showed it to superstars Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson. They loved it. All three joined our team as executive producers, and Ryan, who grew up in British Columbia near the place where Luna was born, became the film’s narrative voice. He is definitely recognizable.

Together they worked with us to produce a new film with added footage, streamlined narrative, and that strong new voice. They built on the power of the original movie’s vision to create what we believe is a remarkable new theatrical film for all ages: The Whale. And now the doors to the theaters in the US, and we hope, the rest of the world, are swinging open to Luna.

What lessons do you hope people learn from this film?

This is not an advocacy movie. We made this film simply to tell Luna’s amazing story. Like all narratives, the life story of Luna has many layers of meaning, and no one knows all of them. Humans have spent generations trying to figure out the meanings of even the most simple parables in the Bible, or the symbolic works of great authors, so we cannot imagine being able to tell you what the life story of one extraordinary whale fully means. We can only tell the story, not solve its intricate puzzle.

If we have told the story well, those layers will be there and the people who watch the film will learn something special for themselves. Like any wonderful story, this is about emotions as much as about facts or information, and emotions are always hard to capture in words. And this film is even more mysterious than most, because it tries to come to terms with the emotions of a whale, and how can we have any real idea what was going on, except just to describe what we saw?

This film has been described as “a complete emotional experience,” and it does have an effect on people, but when you go through something that has that kind of an effect, do you understand it? Not completely. Yet you do learn something from it. So we offer the experience to you, to the audience, and we hope it’s a sign of respect for the complexity of your own emotional response, that we do not try to tell you what it all means.

There is one thing we can say. Through this film maybe we can all recognize that this little whale we called Luna had emotions that were surely not like ours but may have resembled them. And that is a big thing to learn. So if our hearts are moved by Luna, maybe that’s a start.

Whale of a Tale

This is the original article that introduced the world to Luna.


Luna in Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound (Michael Parfit)

Whale of a Tale

When Luna, a people-loving orca, chose Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound for his home, he set in motion a drama of leviathan proportions

Smithsonian Magazine
November 2004

It was a story about an animal, and then it wasn’t. It was just a story about a lonely whale, at first. Then it got completely out of hand.

The story began in June 2001 when a baby male orca went missing from the waters near the San Juan Islands, between WashingtonState and Canada’s Vancouver Island. He had been born in September 1999 into a group of about 80 orcas called “southern residents.” The group, named because it spends summers near the southern part of Vancouver Island, is listed as endangered by Canada and by WashingtonState, so the whale, nicknamed Luna in a contest held by a Seattle newspaper, was vital to its future. But a whale census taken in June 2001 did not find little Luna. Baby orcas almost never make it on their own, so scientists assumed Luna was dead.

They were wrong.

In April of this year my wife, Suzanne, and I drove to a remote and spectacular fiord called Nootka Sound halfway up the west side of Vancouver Island. We rented an apartment in GoldRiver, a mill town of about 1,500 near the sound, which has lost its mill and is trying hard not to go ghostly. This was where Luna had come back from the dead.

Luna showed up in Nootka Sound in July 2001. Among the first to see him was the crew of a spruced-up former minesweeper called the Uchuck III, which carries spools of cable to logging camps, beer to fishing lodges and tourists into ancient wilderness. The little whale came out of nowhere one day to cavort in the ship’s wake, and over the next weeks, as the Uchuck went back and forth on its regular journeys, he became bolder and bolder.

“He breached, did tail flips, blew raspberries and squirted water at us,” Donna Schneider, the ship’s cook, remembered. “Sometimes he’d go right down the side of the boat, flapping his flipper at us.”

Scientists identify killer whales by the individual shape of a splash of gray behind their dorsal fin, called a saddle patch, and the fin itself. They identified Luna by matching his patch with early photographs. Although his family, known as Lpod, had not been documented in Nootka Sound—200 sea miles north of their summer territory—Luna had somehow found his way here. And though he was the equivalent of a human toddler in orca years, he’d figured out how to eat enough salmon to keep himself alive.

Orcas, or killer whales, are actually members of the dolphin family. They are extraordinarily social; the southern residents stay together in their pods all their lives, which can be as long as humans’. But in Nootka Sound, Luna had no pod, so he made one out of people.

Soon, anyone who went out in a boat to Luna’s part of Nootka Sound might meet him. He’d occasionally come up, put his head up on the gunwales, open his mouth, and let you rub his tongue. He played fetch. If you put a boat fender out on a rope, he’d hold it in his mouth and play tug-of-war, gently enough not to destroy the fender. When a tourist’s hat fell off the Uchuck, Luna came up with it perched on his nose. When loggers dropped the end of a chain into the water, Luna brought it up and gave it to them. When he heard a familiar boat coming, he’d jump three times and then zip right over to ride the wake. To the people who played with him, he was a charmer, a rogue, a goofball, a rambunctious kid. People fell in love.

“You can see in people when they have been affected by a whale,” says Lisa Larsson, a researcher who studies whale sounds. “You really get moved by them, and you don’t know how, but it just touches you inside somehow.” Donna Schneider felt the same. On one occasion the little rascal came up beside the Uchuck, rolled over on his side, and looked her right in the eye. “When he looks at you,” she said later, “it’s like he’s looking right into your soul. I can’t breathe.”

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