The Whale: Q & A About an Amazing Young Orca

Written by on March 5, 2013 in Editor's Choice, Interviews, Marine Life, Whales & Dolphins
Luna underwater. Image © THE WHALE.

Luna underwater. Image © THE WHALE.

The Whale is a true story about a young, wild orca (killer whale) who became separated from his family at the age of two. This whale – nicknamed Luna – showed up in Nootka Sound, British Columbia one day and began to change people’s lives.

Orcas are very social creatures that live in groups, called pods, for their entire life. When Luna lost his family, he began to try to make new friends. Since he couldn’t find any orcas, he settled for humans.

It’s against the law to interact with or approach a wild marine mammal, but what happens when that whale approaches you? What happens when he follows your boat, plays with the hose on your boat, and stares directly into your eyes? This was a brand new scenario and no one, not the residents, not the local tribal population, not even the government, knew what do.

Directed by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, The Whale tells the truly amazing story of Luna’s time in Nootka Sound and raises many questions about “this thing we call friendship.”

MST recently caught up with co-directors Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit to discuss Luna and the film.

Q- The Whale isn’t trying to tell anybody what to do. It isn’t telling us what’s right and what’s wrong. But it is definitely still teaching us something. What’s the most important thing you hope people learn from Luna and this film?

A- You’re right – we aren’t trying to tell people what to do or how to think. Above all, we’re storytellers, and we found ourselves in the middle of an incredible story about an amazing animal. So this isn’t a message film, it’s a story film. But if people walk away from the film with a greater appreciation for the social needs that orcas share with us, that’s great. Ultimately, it’s a film about friendship and respect between humans and other species.

Q- One of the possible solutions was to reunite Luna with his family. Why did some (or many) people feel that this wouldn’t work? If orcas are such family-oriented animals, what could have gone wrong?

A- Scientists were very divided on whether the reunion would work. One of the concerns was that Luna had been away from his family for almost three years by the time the reunion was going to take place, so some scientists believed that his family would no longer be interested in him. Others believed that he had become so accustomed to humans that he wouldn’t want to go back with his family. The interesting thing about these assertions is that there is no scientific evidence to support them. It was all conjecture.

The one thing that almost four decades of science has shown unambiguously is that Luna’s family of orcas (the Southern Resident Community) is intensely social and its members stick together for life. Also, we saw first-hand how interested Luna was in people but also how frustrating it seemed to be for him not to get most of the social interaction he wanted, even when people were with him. Because of that and because of the orca community’s remarkable social cohesiveness, we personally believe a reunion was likely to have been successful.

Q- Keeping marine mammals in captivity is increasingly controversial. If Luna’s pod had rejected him, there were plans to send him to an aquarium. I, personally, don’t think that would have been a good solution. But, for a whale that craved attention like he did, do you think it would have been suitable? 

A- We are strongly opposed to captivity of orcas. Yes, Luna craved attention, but does that mean he should therefore have been condemned to a life in prison? If your teenage daughter likes to talk on the phone, should she spend the rest of her life in a phone booth? (We realize that analogy may puzzle people in this era of cell phones, but you get the picture!) There were plenty of other options to provide social interactions for Luna without imprisoning him in a concrete tank.

Q- If this were to happen again – another young whale lost and alone – do you think we would know how to handle it? Would we be better prepared?

A- Sadly, we aren’t convinced that humans would know how to handle another similar situation. Ideally, Luna should have been moved back to be with his pod as soon as possible. However, we believe that once it was clear that Luna was going to be in Nootka Sound for a while, there should have been some form of managed interaction. Scientists told us that social interaction is as important to orcas as food, yet all the government’s action on Nootka Sound was directed at trying to prevent any interaction. Luna managed to make connections with people every day in spite of the rules, by interacting with boats that were too slow to avoid him, but because of all the prohibitions, the interaction he could get was chaotic and uncontrolled and sometimes dangerous.

We think controlled, carefully-designed interaction could have kept him both safe and wild. But there were many, many constraints — including cost, logistics, and legal, political, and scientific hurdles– to both the move and to an interactive program. Those same constraints will exist if there is another solitary sociable cetacean either here or elsewhere in the world.

Most government agencies that deal with marine mammals don’t have policies to rescue marine mammals like Luna, and many of them have blanket provisions against interaction with marine mammals that are extremely important 99 percent the time, but don’t work so well with sociable animals like Luna. So if there are future cases like Luna, it’s hard to imagine that things will be done differently. Having said that, we know that some scientists are shifting their perspectives and recognizing that some form of managed interaction may be an appropriate option for some solitary sociable cetaceans. We believe that if they make their case convincingly to the management agencies, perhaps policies will change. That gives us hope.

Further questions? Please feel free to check out our website, www.thewhalemovie.com, or e-mail us at suzanne@thewhalemovie.com.

Luna at the surface. Image © THE WHALE.

Luna at the surface. Image © THE WHALE.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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