The movie that tells his poignant tale
Visiting the Orcas
Thursday evening: The story of Luna, the wayward orca, is already well known. So it’s not giving away the ending of this movie to say that his search for friendship among the humans he followed around came to a sad end one day, five years ago.
But the story of his life leading up to that fateful day is told poignantly, but with no editorializing, by Mike Parfit and Suzanne Chisolm, in their movie, The Whale. They showed us a preview of this evening, and the movie opens in New York and other cities on September 16.
The story begins in Nootka Sound, off the west coast of Canada, in 2001, when the young whale somehow becomes separated from his pod — the “L” pod, one of the families well known to whale watchers and scientists up and down the coasts of Washington and British Columbia.
Nootka Sound is a remote waterway that winds its way inland from the Pacific to one of the old logging towns up the river and the “L” pod often hangs out there on their salmon fishing expeditions.
When the pod returned to Puget Sound, off the Seattle coast, without Luna and his uncle, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and other scientists speculated that the missing whales may have been fishing together when the uncle died. But no one really knows what happened.
Luna was only a year old — very young for an animal who would routinely live into his 60s or 70s and who doesn’t mature until he’s at least 20. So what happened to him was like a human child finding himself alone and lost.
Fortunately for him, Luna had at least learned to catch his own food.
Orcas are not loners; they’re social animals who need each other’s company. So Luna did the next best thing to finding his own family: he started making friends with the humans who come and go on Nootka Sound.
In the years that followed, the young whale attracted thousands of tourists who came to visit him. And he sparked a major dispute, involving the Canadian government, the whale protection groups and the marine circuses.
The government tried in vain to stop humans from accepting the friendship of Luna. The orca protection groups wanted to work with the young whale so that he would bond temporarily with them, enabling them to lead him back to his family.
And the marine circuses came up with all manner of schemes to try to “save” Luna so they could then hold on to him and put him on public display. As an already-friendly whale who would also have been good for breeding, he would have been a huge prize, and at a minimal price.
The dispute continued for about five years while Luna befriended different people and groups, only to be baffled when they would suddenly stop reciprocating his friendship because of orders from the government.
In the end, one day when Luna was frolicking around the back of a tugboat in an effort to make friends with the people on board, he was injured by the propeller and did not survive.
It’s a story about a whale. But it’s also a powerful allegory about human behavior: the special interests with dollar signs flashing in their eyes; the government bureaucracies trying to protect their turf and play by their own rulebook; the orca groups and scientists who knew exactly what to do to get Luna back to his family but could never get the government cooperation they needed; the fishermen who were afraid that Luna would eat “their” fish; and all the tourists and other visitors who wanted to play with him and have their photo taken with him but who would then move on or be stopped by the government — all leaving one very confused young animal in their wake.
Incidentally, there’s nothing gory or upsetting in any of the visuals. And while Mike and Suzanne are not simply the producers of the movie (they’re involved in trying to save Luna), they don’t try to propagandize in the movie. They’re expert enough moviemakers to know that the story is far more powerful when just told as well as possible. And in this case, it’s told movingly and memorably.
Watch for it later this year.
Next: Orcas on Vacation