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.


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