Two Whales, Two Stories

Posted by Daniel on Nov 19, 2011

There is a new film out about Luna, the "orphan" killer whale from Nootka Sound. Well, not new exactly. The documentary originally came out a couple of years ago but its makers, Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, went back into the studio to reshape the film and have re-released it with narration by Hollywood heartthrob (and BC boy) Ryan Reynolds. (This is no knock on Parfit and Chisholm; they've made a very nice film and if hitching it to a celebrity's star is the way to attract attention, bless them.)

I have not seen the new version but I certainly saw the original and it was stunning. What interests me, though, is why the story of Luna has such legs -- this is at least the third movie version of the story -- while the story of Springer is all but forgotten. I suppose I should not be surprised. The Luna story is full of drama, includes lots of conflict, and in the end (spoiler alert!) the whale dies, while Springer was a success story with a happy ending and we all know how boring that can be.


To review. Luna was a one-year-old male orca discovered all alone in 2001 in Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island. Orcas, or killer whales, are almost never separated from their family group, certainly not ones as young as Luna, so there was concern for the animal's safety. (Confession: I co-wrote a book about these events with Gil Hewlett called Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales, published in 2007 by Harbour Publishing.) As time passed Luna's interactions with humans became more common and, to scientists, more worrisome and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans eventually asked the Vancouver Aquarium to attempt a live capture and relocation of the whale. But the situation was fraught with politics, the capture failed and further attempts were suspended in the midst of a media circus. Two years later, as feared, Luna swam into the propeller of a large tug and was killed.

As I say, the story of Springer had a happier outcome though not, apparently, a Hollywood one. Like Luna, Springer was also a very young orca who appeared, alone, in Puget Sound near Seattle toward the end of 2001. Concerned for her health, scientists decided to try to capture Springer and relocate her back with her own family in Johnstone Strait on the east coast of Vancouver. This had never been done before. The people involved really had no idea whether it was possible and how the absent whale would be treated by her relatives if she returned.

In the event, things turned out well. In July 2002 Springer was transported by boat to a netpen at Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait. Almost immediately her family happened along and Springer was released. After some initial standoffishness, a reunion took place and Springer continues to thrive, reappearing in the Strait each summer.

So, the life of a whale is saved, history is made, and science learns a lot it didn't know about the behaviour of orcas. But this is hard to translate into drama so it is the story of Luna -- the whale dies, feelings are bruised, and science learns very little -- that attracts the attention of Hollywood.

As I say, not surprising. Still...