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san juan islands


Doing the right thing for Luna
Sacramento Business Journal
July 9, 2004

Luna the killer whale resurfaced last month in the Pacific waters west of Vancouver Island. .

My wife, Elena, and I saw the news about Luna while we were in the area to ogle a group of the big, sleek, black-and-white killer whales around the San Juan Islands north of Seattle.

Three years ago, Luna disappeared from his family -- called a pod in whalespeak -- and nobody knows why. The friendly orca reappeared some months later, many miles from his family.

Boaters encountering Luna have plenty of video showing that he's affectionate, cavorting with any boats and humans he comes across. Some believe he's just lonesome.

Now he's 4 years old and growing. This has made wildlife folks worry that as Luna gets bigger, his friendliness could create a safety problem. They think he could sink a boat by literally loving it to death.

At first light on June 22, they set out in motorized rubber rafts to steer Luna into a netted pen for an eventual reunion with his pod.

But members of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht band of Indians were also on the water that dawn. In wooden canoes, they paddled in unison in search of Luna. He had turned up only days after the 2001 death of their chief, Ambrose Maquinna, who'd said earlier he wished to come back as a killer whale. The Indians believe Luna is their dead chief's new worldly form.

The Indians chanted to Luna and banged their paddles on their boat bottoms amid choppy coastal waters, calling to him to come with them.

Killer whales are graceful giants, a sight to behold in their natural habitat. Scientists have nicknamed the local orcas according to the shapes of their dorsal fins. The three local pods don't mix with other "transient" orcas, which eat anything that moves, including seals. Local orcas eat only salmon and other native fish. They are a matriarchal lot, led by the oldest female. In one particular pod that female is believed to be 93 years old, with roughly the same life span as Ronald Reagan.

When a pod member dies, the whales return several times to the place of death to linger. Naturalists theorize that it's a rite of mourning.

Pods here have a lot more females than males, says the naturalist on our boat, because in the '70s a few theme parks came in and captured young male orcas to be their water-show stars.

Today our boat of hopeful whale-watchers spots a big pod of local orcas, and so do a handful of other crafts trolling for a close look. Rules say boats must give pods a cushion of 500 yards or risk a big fine. If the whales swim toward a boat, however, there's no penalty, and gawkers can see these tremendous marine mammals up close.

Our captain parks the boat in the path of the cruising whales. They're far off, showing an occasional lineup of powerful sprays and dorsals before resubmerging. Whales have ultrasensitive hearing, like sonar. They seem to swim away from boat engine noise, and they're avoiding us like we're vacuum salesmen.

But the pod finally passes the bow of our boat, about 50 yards away, and we hear the air-funnel rhythm of their powerful blowhole sprays, breaking the quiet as they glide by, moving smoothly up to the surface, then down below, as we all just watch in awe.

At the boat's railing, sad thoughts stir in me. Despite their intelligence, size and power, these whales are very vulnerable, trying to swim safely through a minefield of human actions.

Later in the day, we visit a whale museum at Friday Harbor in the San Juans. It displays one factoid that the naturalist on our boat didn't mention: These orcas have joined the ever-growing list of endangered species. Their population is shrinking.

One theory is they're not getting enough salmon to eat. Which is another sad story. We're seeing what could be the last phase of these peaceful sea mammals.

The museum has recordings of the orcas' underwater squeals, clicks and bellows. Though they'd like to know, scientists don't have a clue what the sounds mean.

I imagine they're saying things like, "Could you quit catching all the salmon?" or "Please don't kidnap any more of our family" or even "How about cutting the engines on your boats. They give us a headache."

But these orcas also seem laid-back, not given to complaining as much as trying merely to survive at the end of an increasingly sparse food chain.

Luna swam into the pen the naturalists set up but then slipped out to the open, wind-whipped waters. He followed the Indians' chants and paddle-thumping and splashed alongside them as though they were new friends on his playground.

All the humans involved think they know what's best for Luna. Put him with his pod, say the scientists. Leave him alone, say the Indians.

But only Luna knows what he wants to do. And he's doing it.