Luna Dies – March 16th 2006

It is with a profound sense of sorrow and loss that we must report the death of Luna, the young male orca also known as Tsu’xiit and L98, who has been living a solitary existence in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, for the past 5 years. Luna was killed in a tragic accident on Friday March 10th when he was hit by the propeller of a large tugboat. It is not precisely clear how the accident happened, though the bare facts are simple enough. The tugboat General Jackson had entered Nootka Sound seeking shelter from a storm and was running its engine in gear to control its load when the accident happened. Just beforehand, Luna was sighted playing close to the tug’s stern, as he has done with innumerable other vessels over the past several years. Perhaps a momentary distraction caused Luna to be sucked into the heavy wash of the 2m propellers, we will never know, but it is almost certain that he died instantly. The crew was alerted by the impact and soon sighted body parts floating at the surface, attracting seagulls. Fisheries officers reportedly recovered some of the fragments and confirmed them as being from an orca. Though positive identification awaits further testing, there is very little uncertainty that Luna was the casualty. Stunned Luna watchers around the world, including ourselves, are experiencing shock and heartbreak.

Luna’s fatal accident came as a huge surprise partly because he had long demonstrated mastery of his environment. When he first showed up in Nootka Sound in July 2001 Luna was less than 2 years old, yet he quickly displayed an ability to fend for himself. In part, it was Luna’s apparent competence that calmed immediate concerns about his separation from his family and community. Luna appeared healthy, and though he was in an unusual part of the range of his Southern Resident orca community he was still within it, so there was reason to hope that he would find his own way home. He did not, and instead Nootka Sound became Luna’s home. He knew every nook and cranny of it, and every vessel that plied its waters… and everyone knew him. To a few, Luna was a nuisance in that he used vessels as playthings and occasionally caused damage, but to the vast majority he was admired and respected, even idolized, an awesome fascination. People drawn to Luna came to love and care for him, and a circle of concern for his welfare spread around the world.

Luna became a cause célèbre as calls for his reunification with his family and community grew. In response, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans made plans to capture and move Luna to a location where he could hear the familiar sounds of his community and hopefully rejoin it, as happened successfully with Springer in 2002. Unfortunately, the plans failed to fully consider the cultural perspective of the First Nations of Nootka Sound, and when they actively opposed Luna’s capture the translocation attempt was abandoned. Stewardship efforts to protect Luna by leading him away from danger and diverting small vessels during the busy boating season were largely successful, but Luna remained a free and independent spirit whose fate ultimately lay only within himself. Perhaps as a substitute for social life among his own kind Luna became fascinated by human activities, constantly challenging the limits of his ability to avoid danger. So many of us recognised the dangers Luna faced, but held to the faith that a solution to his dilemma could be found. Tragically, even as plans were being made to use Luna’s natural inquisitiveness to protect him from harm and learn more about him, perhaps even lead him back to his kin, disaster struck.

Born in September 1999, Luna was a member of “L” pod of the “Southern Resident” community of orcas that spends much of each year in the waters of southern Vancouver Island and Puget Sound. His earliest days were confusing in that he was first seen with one adult female and then another, but it soon became clear that Luna’s mum was Splash (L67). In 2000 Luna spent his first summer “season” with his family & community, but when they returned in June 2001 he wasn’t with them. At that point he was presumed to have died. Then in July of 2001 he was sighted alone in Nootka Sound. His identity as L98 was determined a few months later, but his presence wasn’t broadly known for some time. Once it seemed that Luna was comfortable in Nootka Sound and reluctant to explore the open ocean, the issue of attempting to reunite him with his kin arose. The web site served to focus public discussion while governments consulted the scientific community via their agencies. An official plan was formed, funded and eventually attempted. Its failure did not diminish the concern for Luna, or inhibit the search for solutions to the problem he presented. Extraordinary efforts to protect him continued, but in the end time simply ran out.

The loss of Luna has many facets. Gone is his exuberant life; gone is the possibility that Luna may have contributed to the future of his endangered Southern Resident orca community; gone is the opportunity he presented for diverse groups with differing perspectives to work together in solving a challenging common problem, as happened with Springer; and gone is Luna’s potential contribution to our understanding of orcas, their biology & behaviour, their societies and their needs. Gone forever is Luna’s unique gift to our world.

In the wake of Luna’s death, thoughts turn to lessons learned. Can we, collectively as a community with all our disparate parts, opinions, attitudes and agendas, sort through the wreckage of this tragedy and find enough common ground to ensure that next time the ending is different, a rejoicing instead of a dirge? If we can, Luna’s passing from our midst will not have been in vain.

Unlikely as such an outcome may be, Luna leaves us with a legacy that includes a multitude of fond memories of a magnificent being and the sounds of his haunting voice echoing among the cathedral walls of Nootka Sound.

We thank Chantelle Tucker for her photos of Luna.

Paul Spong & Helena Symonds

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