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Whales 1, scientists 0 - Orca Luna’s capture and relocation prevented
By Jane Armstrong

Globe and Mail

26th June 2004

In the end, the whale experts in their high-speed Zodiacs were no match for the banging drums and haunting songs of a group of novice native paddlers. Luna chose the paddlers.

The massive, black and white orca, with the personality of an affectionate house cat, ignored the entreaties of the scientists who arrived in this tiny Vancouver Island village two weeks ago with a lofty plan to capture Luna and take it back to its family.

Yesterday, those scientists were packing their bags to leave, minus the whale, their plan foiled by a dramatic intervention from native paddlers who for eight days shadowed Luna with their canoes, coaxing the orca away from the would-be captors.

It worked.

Yesterday, Luna was splashing and twirling in the shimmering waters off Gold River, kilometres away from the empty net pen constructed near the water's edge to hold the whale before it was to be trucked south.

For the scientists and federal fisheries officials who spearheaded the ambitious reunification effort, the thwarted capture was a crushing disappointment.

And the gruelling, eight-day tug of war only cemented Luna's fondness for boats and human voices. They said the five-year-old male orca is more of a threat than ever — to itself and boaters in this bustling harbour at the head of a deep inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island. "Something is going to happen to him," one fisheries official warned yesterday morning. "I guarantee it."

But members of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation were thrilled. When word went out Thursday afternoon that officials had called off the capture, whoops of joy erupted at the wharf where they have set up a camp.

Minutes later, when the painted cedar canoes pulled into the dock, the paddlers were overcome with emotion.

"I'm proud of what we did," said Rudy Dick, who grabbed his 17-month-old son and kissed him. "We just kept pulling and pushing and singing,"

Although the paddlers' efforts were mounted to prevent Luna's capture, it was evident that far more was at stake for the Mowachaht-Muchalaht than the future of one killer whale. In foiling Luna's capture, the natives not only stalled the reunification plan, but they won the right to participate in talks with Fisheries Department officials to carve a new plan for the whale.

More important, the televised tug of war, which pitted native canoes against government-owned Zodiacs, had a David-and-Goliath element that drew public sympathy to the native effort as the days wore on.

It also galvanized a group of young native men and women, many of whom had been as estranged from their cultural traditions as Luna is from its pod. Some said they had never been in a canoe before last week.

Jerry Jack, a Mowachaht-Muchalaht chief, could only chuckle at the optics of his people taking on Luna's captors.

"We just did it with our canoes and our hand power and the youth singing," Mr. Jack, 66, said, as he sat with other natives at the water's edge Thursday evening.

Then, turning serious, Mr. Jack said he hopes fisheries officials have learned they can't meddle in waters that have been home to native peoples for thousands of years.

For months, they and the natives had been at odds over what to do with Luna, a young orca that showed up three years ago in the waters off Gold River. Separated from its pod, the whale developed a fondness for boats and planes. Luna was often seen rubbing its belly against the bottom of boats, even approaching the public dock.

Fisheries officials grew concerned Luna would one day hurt itself or a human. Last year, they announced a plan to capture the whale and truck it south to a bay near Victoria, in waters where its pod is known to swim in late June.

But the natives opposed the plan, saying the reunification went against nature, and arguing that the whale must have come to Gold River for a reason. They believed Luna embodied the spirit of their late chief, Ambrose Maquinna, who died days before the whale arrived in the West Coast inlet.

When scientists arrived two weeks ago, the natives had their own plan. They rounded up their young men and women, who piled into canoes and shadowed the whale up and down the 20-kilometre-long inlet.

The well-meaning capture effort quickly disintegrated into a tense game of high-seas chess between federal officials and natives. Each time the Fisheries Zodiacs lured Luna toward Gold River, natives in their canoes arrived to entice the orca away toward the ocean.

For the Mowachaht-Muchalaht, the plan to ensnare Luna unleashed a wave of resentment against fisheries officials in particular and the federal government in general.

Each day, the paddlers and their organizers grew bolder. A defining moment between officials and natives occurred early Thursday morning near Mooyah Bay, one of Luna's favourite feeding grounds.

Luna was splashing and rubbing its white belly along Mr. Jack's fishing boat while the native chief sat in a lawn chair on deck. "He's giving himself a belly massage," Mr. Jack laughed.

Nearby, paddlers in a canoe were singing the late chief Maquinna's favourite songs. Then, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans Zodiac approached and a man with a bullhorn ordered Mr. Jack to get away from the orca.

"Immediately leave the area," the official warned. "You are within 500 metres of the whale."

Mr. Jack grew livid and let loose a stream of insults at the vessel. "This is my territory," he yelled across the water. "Who are you to tell me to get away? You guys should get the hell out of here."

Eventually the vessel retreated from the bay. Mr. Jack didn't know it, but within hours, the capture plan would be called off. He and the paddlers spent the rest of the day circling the bay, never venturing more than 100 metres from the whale.

Mr. Jack said the natives' efforts to keep Luna from the net pen gave his community's young people a sense of purpose. Many of the paddlers interviewed had similar stories. They were unemployed or underemployed and eager to demonstrate their fortitude on the water.

Johnny Dick, 25, said paddling the canoe with a killer whale in tow was an experience he'll never forget.

Mr. Dick spent 19 hours on the water Tuesday. "I was just singing my heart out for Luna," he said. "Here's a grown man like me, wanting to cry."

As for Luna's future, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it still wants to relocate the whale near Victoria. But in a terse statement released Thursday afternoon, it said the capture is on hold and the Fisheries Department will start talks next week with the natives.

In Gold River yesterday, some scientists expressed alarm that time is running out. By now, Luna was supposed to be en route to the Juan de Fuca Strait. If the capture is delayed much longer, the opportunity to hook up with its pod will be lost, they said.

But one whale lover who was following the Luna drama with interest said he hopes the Fisheries Department and scientists have learned their lesson.

Keith Wood, a software developer from Dallas, who also studies whale acoustics, said the doom-and-gloom scenarios painted by the people who insist Luna be moved now ring false.

Mr. Wood said the whale has never hurt anyone and questioned the need to drag the animal from the water. Mr. Wood said the orca wandered into the Gold River waters and will one day wander out. "What's the rush?” Mr. Wood said yesterday. "People just need to have a little patience."

Echoing the native mantra, Mr. Wood continued: "Let nature take its course."