Leave Luna in Nootka Sound - An Op/ed Submission from SeaWolf

Humans have an instinctual need to do what we, collectively, believe is in the best interest of our surrounding environment.

Correspondingly, the visceral reaction, once we learned that another orphaned killer whale was found in a remote British Columbia inlet, was to catch that whale, and reunite him with his remaining family. In the beginning - before Luna was as 'conditioned' as he is now - this approach would have been the best choice. Today, since government and First Nation's perspectives have delayed past a window of opportunity, Capturing this particular whale is inappropriate for a number of very compelling reasons. Having missed a vital opportunity, the best course of action now is to let the killer whale calf decide its own future in the waters of Muchalat Inlet.

When Luna first appeared in Nootka Sound in June of 2001, after six more of his pod mates disappeared from the southern resident orca whale population, researchers and whale experts feared that these whales had all died. But even that summer, other members of the southern resident whale population (K-pod) and even some of Luna's own clan members have still not returned to inland waters, raising speculation among local researchers as to where the southern residents might now be.

One theory was that Luna and his pod mates were all finding new, permanent territories to hunt and forage in, mainly in response to the increased toxins, vessel traffic, noise pollution and declining salmon populations in their summer feeding grounds.

If this is indeed a ecological redistribution of a population under pressure, it may be argued that a relocation effort would have been counterproductive, and environmentally incorrect - primarily since we seem to be motivated by our limited knowledge of 'what is good for the animal'.

Having missed that vital window of opportunity, there's now also an element of increased cost and liability involved.

In the past two years, Luna has become much more conditioned, and arguably habituated to, human interaction. If brought back south at this late point, it's possible that Luna, who could easily tip a small craft unintentionally in his enthusiasm for human affection, might inadvertently injure or drown a boater, if released in the more crowded Strait-of-Georgia region.

And if Luna is ultimately unable to wean himself from human contact? Not unlike the recently deceased 'Keiko', the orca whale of 'Free Willy' fame who, after an expense of $20-million dollars, was returned to Icelandic waters, Luna may also be destined to become another costly ward of Canadian or US taxpayers, or be captured and shipped to a marine entertainment facility.

That's something that orca whale advocates, taxpayers, and government agencies, would all dread - even more than if Luna were to be injured and killed in Nootka Sound.

Accordingly, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans should also have been far more open to meaningful discussions with the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations early on in the process; cultural insensitivity is bad policy for any government agency - particularly in a case where the tribe has an inherent connection to the welfare of this particular orca, and where the tribe has such powerful political influence in the remote location where this event is unfolding.

In light of the prospect of leaving Luna where he is, the DFO will now have to mend relationships with the Mowachaht/Muchalaht, and, quite possibly, depend on their members to act as stewards of the calf throughout the summer.

Luna should remain in Nootka Sound, where the water is cleaner, where salmon is more abundant, and were fewer people will interact with the calf. The Mowachaht people, along with volunteer whale advocacy groups, can steward the calf, and eventually, Luna may leave the inlet, or other members of L-pod may enter the Sound and reunite naturally with Luna. It might end that Luna may be injured or killed in Nootka Sound years before he is due... even if that happens, at least he will be a free for the next few years.

The initial delay in making a decision to capture Luna outright was a big mistake: but now that this mistake has been made, continuing plans to capture and relocate the whale is a rash reaction prompted primarily by the lobbying efforts of well-intentioned, but shortsighted, whale advocate groups. Considering our reasonably short history of orca relocation knowledge, it's safe to say that we humans may not always know what's the best for wayward wildlife.

Perhaps efforts should instead be redirected into securing the freedom and release of 'Lolita' the only remaining live J-clan female held in captivity at a Florida marine park. If released in Nootka Sound, perhaps in time Luna and Lolita could propagate a new pod of uncontaminated offspring, which might eventually shore up the decline southern resident orca population.

The success we encountered with the reunification efforts of Springer a few years back does not necessarily mean that all whale reunification efforts are destined to work. In Luna's case, the best course of action - because we didn't act quickly enough at first - is to now leave him where he is, to educate the public, and firmly enforce a 'no-contact' order (to all parties involved, no exceptions!), and to watch nature take its evolving course. If he does end up dying, at least he will have experienced a few years of living in a clean, wild environment.

Perhaps we might even learn something new about the way nature, and wildlife, adapts.


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