Overjoyed Orca

Humans tame another stray killer whale.

YOU HAVE TO HAVE a little sympathy for the fisheries officials—American and Canadian—who find themselves stuck with lost baby killer whales. Until last year, such strandings were unknown. Last summer, the whole world watched while federal officials first dithered, then permitted volunteers to transport orca A-73, a.k.a. Springer, from Seattle to her pod off British Columbia. Meanwhile, 200 miles north of the TV crews on the remote west shore of Vancouver Island, another 2-year-old whale had already spent a year alone after getting separated from his family. Orca L-98, named Luna, is still stranded in Nootka Sound as a long, possibly hungry winter looms. Canadian Fisheries and Oceans officials seem as much at a loss as to what to do with Luna as their Yankee counterparts were with Springer before media and public clamor made them spring her. But Luna's been lost much, much longer than Springer was, and the clamor's just starting over him.

Last Thursday, L-98 turned 3 years old in the bay where he's spent nearly half his life. He's had a steady supply of fish and looks fitter than Springer did, and with a steady supply of adoring visitors to caress him and stick their hands and heads in his mouth, he hasn't really been alone. Tourism operators have hyped Luna, New Agers have meditated with him, and drunken loggers have poured beer down his throat. Everybody loves a baby orca— loves him to death.

A lot of people around Nootka Sound like having a whale child to call their own. And call him their own they do. The local Mowachaht/Muchalaht natives named him Cuuxit, after a revered tribal elder who died just before the whale appeared; they believe he came to mourn. At least the Mowachaht keep a respectful distance from Cuuxit and urge he be returned to his family. Others have shown less respect. One local fishing resort spices its Web site with "amazing pictures of Nootka Sound's orphan resident orca." Other promoters have gone further, advertising whale-watching tours that are really whale-petting sessions. Luna, with no one else to play with, would surf beside boats, dive beneath them, bump their hulls, squeak, spy-hop, blow bubbles, belch fishy breath, and all but climb up the gunwales to get attention.

ALL THIS INTERSPECIES cavorting is heartwarming, inspiring—and potentially dangerous for humans, and very dangerous for the orca. The cozier an animal gets with people, the more accustomed to following boats, the less apt he is to successfully rejoin his pod, and the more apt he is to have a fatal encounter with a propeller. Even after representatives of the Victoria-based Marine Mammal Monitoring (M3) Project arrived in August to keep the whale and boaters apart, they found that "the level of interference that continues makes it clear that as long as Luna is here, his interactions with boats and interpreted 'friendliness' will be exploited and his future jeopardized."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) paid M3 to keep an eye on Luna with money from an anonymous (and, according to one insider, American) donor. The monitors established a de-marinerized zone around Luna, which boats were supposed to cross without tarrying, and lectured and filmed the many boaters who tarried anyway. Often they would have to rescue the trespassers when the 3,000-pound whale with a puppy's disposition refused to let his playmates leave.

The monitors fell for Luna just like everyone else. "He is so charming," says Kari Koski, the boater-education director at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Wash., who recently returned from a monitoring stint. "He's a seducer. It's asking a lot to ask people to restrain themselves." Some monitors would joke about "telepathic communication" with the irresistible orca.

They'll have to communicate from afar now; funding for the monitors ran out in mid-September. Fortunately, the gawkers and pleasure boaters are also fading away with the summer weather, and local fisheries officers have taken up guarding him. Ferry crew members and floatplane pilots check on him during their daily transits. But another deadline looms. "After September, you're looking at storms without warning," says Ed Thorburn, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans field officer on Nootka Sound. Leading or hauling a whale on the 10-foot winter seas would be perilous to impossible. Officials must move him soon or leave him till next spring. And they're not in a rush.

"No final decision has been made," insists DFO marine-mammal coordinator Marilyn Joyce, but a decision by default seems implicit in her other remarks. There's the cost: "Relocating whales is not something we do as part of our business plan." More important, "there's risks in moving as well as leaving him. He's healthy and in a good location. The boat traffic settles down over the winter. If he fails to connect with his pod, he could be faced with spending the winter in much worse circumstances."

That last fear reflects DFO scientists' doubts that Springer has reintegrated with her pod after her transfer north from Puget Sound. Yes, she's swimming happily and healthily with them and has attached herself to an adult pair. But "we really don't know how long it takes to form a permanent bond," says Joyce.

BY THAT LOGIC, counters Seattle whale activist and biologist Fred Felleman, "You'll have to wait 12 years, till she reproduces and contributes to the species, to say the relocation succeeded." He, along with Koski, Thorburn, and others who've worked with L-98, see the risk of broken bonds as one more reason not to wait. And a returning Luna would enjoy one advantage: Unlike Springer, he's no orphan. His mother's still with the pod, though the uncle he followed into Nootka Sound has since died.

Thorburn, who still checks on Luna, sees "some indication that he's not doing well." His breath smells of acetone, which can indicate malnutrition or just a change in diet. Fish—chum salmon and sardinelike pilchards—are still plentiful, but the chum run could end in four weeks and the pilchards in mid-November. Luna thrived last winter only because of an extraordinarily long pilchard run.

One leading Canadian orca biologist, Paul Spong, doesn't see any urgency. "L-98 is a very capable predator. If a particular food source dries up, he'll just find another." Spong also thinks the best time to move him would be spring, when his family returns to the inland waters from wintering in the open ocean and he could be monitored. Koski and Ken Balcomb, the dean of Washington orca experts, think Luna and his pod might get reacquainted better in winter, with peace, privacy, and no stressful boat traffic. "Put a satellite tag on him and finally find out where they go in the winter," suggests Balcomb.

That would be a big boost for scientists, who never get a chance to tag wild orcas. But Luna's gene-pool contribution might be even more important. Whatever's killing the southern resident orcas has killed an outsized share of the males in his pod. Only four at or near breeding age survive. They need him.

But such weighty matters are doubtless far from the lonesome 3-year-old's mind, as he cruises Nootka Sound wondering where his playmates went.

escigliano@seattleweekly.com

 
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