Luna's Untimely Demise in Nootka Sound

After many months of waiting, it seems that the southern resident orca whale calf 'Luna' (L-98), has finally died in a collision with a vessel in Nootka Sound, British Columbia. His death was not entirely unexpected, yet his passing is certainly something that those concerned with ecological protection, and biodiversity loss, should be saddened about.

Luna, a young male orca from the declining 'southern resident orca whale population', was initially believed to be lost, along with six other members of his family, back in 2001. Six months after his disappearance from the Haro Strait, reports from Vancouver Islands Nootka Sound indicated that the orphaned calf was apparently alive, foraging on his own in a remote British Columbian inlet.

Shortly afterward, many groups, including our organisation, began lobbying the Canadian government for a chance to re-capture and return Luna back to his home waters. Lunas extended family had returned here, and the whale was still reasonably unconditioned to human contact. A relocation effort made a great deal of scientific, and ecological, sense.

Accordingly, we also had accumulated the expertise. Having had successfully conducted a similar reunification effort the previous year with another stranded orca whale calf (A-73, known as 'Springer') in Seattle waters, our team of professional marine biologists and rescue experts were on-hand, waiting for a chance to intervene.

The interest in returning Luna to his family was only natural; the southern resident orca whales, a population recently listed as an Endangered species by the United States government, is rapidly losing enough breeding-aged males to sustain their existence. Young Luna, who was relatively uncontaminated by the pervasive toxins that now afflict his podmates, represented a fresh reserve of biodiversity that might have staved off this populations decline for another generation or so.

Accordingly, rescuing this lone calf was also emotionally compelling: little older than a 'toddler', Luna would soon start to seek some form of companionship to replace his missing whale-kindred. But as the political wheels of complacency turned, Luna began interacting with humans; he started nudging and bumping small boats, and he started interfering with the commercial activities in the remote coastal town. It wasnt too long before Luna became conditioned to the presence of humans that arrived in the Gold River region to see the tamed orca whale.

Meanwhile, another political element complicated the matter further. Members of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations people, a British Columbian tribe, expressed their belief that the orca calf (whom they call Tsuux-iit), was their late chief who had recently passed away, but only after announcing that he would return to the tribe as an orca whale. Shortly after his death, Luna appeared.

Caught in a political web of conflicting science and spiritual beliefs, the Canadian government became indecisive; Luna continued to grow, and interact with humans, until the whale became a five-year-old, 3000-pound animal. At this point, our group declined to become involved in any further reunification discussions. It was very likely that a transplanted Luna would interact with small boats in local waters, and accidentally capsize or injure boaters in this region. Our hands were tied; the Canadian government had waited too long for a reasonable and timely rescue effort to be brought forth.

Finally, one year later, after it became clear that the whale was endangering himself and others in Nootka Sound, the Canadian government decided to capture Luna without developing a clear plan for his disposition. First Nations members intervened, and by employing the young calfs conditioned desire for human contact, successfully lured Luna away from capture teams. Shortly afterward, a 'joint stewardship' agreement was negotiated between the Mowachaht-Muchalaht and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Luna would remain in Nootka Sound until the orca himself decided it was time to depart.

Southward today, Lunas clan continues to decline, and now, there are only seven breeding-age males left in the local resident population. Necropsies on recently deceased orcas from this clan show such profoundly high levels of bio-accumulated contamination from PCBs and persistent organochlorines, that their beach-cast carcasses have to be categorized as toxic waste. Some researchers believe the remnant population are so contaminated, that adult animals are approaching reproductive failure and sterility.

Correspondingly, Luna, who had remained relatively isolated, in a much less contaminated environment, emerged as a prospectively 'cleaner' male, whose constitution might have stood a better chance at producing more healthy offspring - if he could have been returned to his community as a sexually mature, breeding-age orca. Females in the southern resident orca population, who have a slight advantage in being able to release some of their contamination through the nursing process, may have been able to breed with Luna, and produce calves with a higher chance of survival.

Yet now, Lunas death suggests that the eventual loss of biodiversity that would accompany the prospective disappearance of the southern resident orca population is even more certain. Lunas conditioned penchant for human contact, and the political circumstances that perpetuated that interaction and his eventual death, may have moved the pendulum of extirpation closer for the entire southern resident orca whale population.

Regrettably, human politics, and our inability to reach consensus on what is genuinely more important for sustainable ecological preservation, must be recognised as the cause of this tragedy.

In the coming days, somewhere in a remote Vancouver Island inlet, a gathering of people will surely converge to mourn the loss of this young orca whale. Beyond the coast mountain range, however, many more people will soon grow to understand that the end of Luna may also signal the larger-scale death of an entire ecosystem.

Our failure to respond more decisively - and collectively - to the circumstances that surrounded Lunas life and death should be a lesson for all agencies and groups involved in this tragedy. In the end, only cooperation and genuine collaboration will protect our vulnerable coastal ecosystems and biodiversity. Perhaps Lunas death will serve to remind us of that most important lesson about ecological sustainability.

Michael Kundu, Founder & Director

* Project SeaWolf was one of the original petitioners for an Endangered Species Listing for southern resident orca whales. SeaWolf was also the prime petitioner for a Washington State Endangered Species listing for these orcas. SeaWolf was the leading non-profit organisation working with the Vancouver Aquarium and Canadian government in the rescue and reunification of 'Springer' (A-73) in the summer of 2002.


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