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.


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