It was a clean but restless day, with hard light on the water and an edge in the north wind, the kind of day in which the sky doesn’t tell you much except not to settle in.
It was the off-season in the islands along the border between the United States and Canada on the west coast of North America, in one of the few places where the border doesn’t go in a straight line. The marina at the Rosario Resort and Spa on Orcas Island, about a hundred air miles north of Seattle, was mostly quiet, except for a few uneasy sailboats with masts and lines clattering like empty flagpoles.
The boat ride from the customs dock had taken about half an hour in lumpy water with a cold wind. All we had was an open twenty-foot boat with an outboard motor and a leaky canvas top, and there had been forty-five minutes of splash and spray even before we got to the customs dock, crossing from our island home in Canada. So Suzanne and I tied up with relief and walked up the dock toward the hotel and into the life of a whale.
We were joining a group of people whose interest or profession was the management of marine mammals. They gathered in a big conference room on rows of good padded chairs, not the folding metal kind. The long table at the front had two tablecloths and a short skirt on top of a long one that reached the ground so you couldn’t see people in the panel of speakers wiggle their feet when they were exasperated at what their neighbors were saying. It was quiet, except for what you were supposed to hear.
I sat in one of the front rows. Suzanne was somewhere farther back. We sat with our small video cameras on tripods next to us. We were writing an article for Smithsonian magazine, not making a movie, but we used cameras for backup for our imperfect notes and because our editors wanted evidence, and cameras are good at evidence.
The room was full of the things that humans do: voices murmuring, chairs moving, clothes rustling, people crossing their legs and leaning forward, leaning back. We were so many and so close that we shared the air as intimately as our voices. We became a massed breathing thing packed into a room, like a school of herring leaning into the tide.
And the voices all turned one way, too. All spoke of one living being who was not there, as if all of us were whispering together about a movie star who should have treatment, or a candidate who needed advice, or a romantic thief who should be caught, or a soul to be saved with our wisdom. The missing subject of all this talk was a killer whale, an orca—a very young one.
Suzanne and I had seen photos in newspapers of a small orca’s head poking up beside a dock, with kids leaning over the side to touch his nose, or of him raising his head to look into boats full of delighted people. These shots illustrated bits of text about how the young orca, whom people called “Luna,” had become separated from his pod and turned up all alone in a distant fjord, where he had started to befriend humans. The most recent stories reported that the Canadian government was planning to solve this problem by catching the little whale and moving him.
There was a shot from one newspaper in which Luna was practically touching noses with a black dog on a boat. There were photos of hands reaching out, and the whale lifting himself partly out of the water to touch them. There were photos of people rubbing the whale’s tongue. The images had been printed all over the world. We had those pictures clipped and in our files, but we didn’t need to bring them with us, because everyone else here had the same shots, stuffed in their briefcases or seared into their minds.
* * *
A man named Marc Pakenham sat at the table and spoke. He had a large and flexible face sculptured with broad strokes. His expression seemed to be burdened by a thoughtful melancholy.
“This whale’s character has been maligned a little bit over the last few years,” he said.
Not knowing the story, we didn’t know what he was talking about. But everybody else seemed to understand.
“In my experience,” he went on, “and that of the other people who have worked with him—and I know Kari and Erin and a few other people have had occasions where we’ve been closer to Luna than we wanted to be—I don’t think anyone can fail to be moved by the fact that this is a good whale.”
If we’d been doing an interview with Marc, we could have asked him why, exactly, he felt the need to defend the moral character of this whale. Who was attacking it? But we said nothing. Marc continued his defense.
“If there is such a thing as a bad whale,” he said, “this is not a bad whale.”
Next to Marc at the long table sat Kari Koski, one of the women he had been talking about, who had spent a few weeks working with Marc’s organization in Luna’s neighborhood. She was almost the opposite of Marc. He seemed weighed down with some kind of wry sorrow, but she was not. She was radiant without seeming naïve, like a person who knows the darkness but shines anyway because shining feels better. She spoke of Luna as if he were a child in her family, as if she could pour her love for him into the room, knowing she had enough to flood us all with it.
“We’ve got a little whale that’s coming up to the boat or the dock,” she said, “and he’s looking you in the eye, and he’s squeaking at you, and it’s what everybody comes out on a whale-watching trip hoping and wishing to get, it’s a personal communication and interaction with a whale.”
She glanced around the room with an affectionate, encompassing look.
“And I think we’re up against a lot,” she said, “when we’re asking people to put their human emotions aside.”
* * *
The meeting was full of detailed information that made only partial sense to us. The whale was a member of a group of whales called L Pod, part of a community of just over eighty, known as the Southern Residents, that spent about six months of the year in the waters near the southern end of Vancouver Island. The whales were officially endangered and were much beloved by the millions of people who lived near them.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had announced that it was going to catch the little whale in the remote fjord where he had been for two and a half years and move him closer to the pod to which he belonged. There were several options, but the most probable involved catching him by subterfuge or force, putting him in a net pen, testing him for several days, bolting a satellite tagging device to his dorsal fin, lifting him into a truck, driving him about two hundred miles, and putting him back in the water near the Vancouver Island city of Victoria.
There was no disagreement in the room, but it was clear that there had been. Everyone went to great lengths to praise everyone else for at last working together to solve the problem. Everyone smiled at one another and shook hands. The smiles looked sincere.
The woman who was in charge of Luna was small and had dark hair. Her title was taller than she was. She was the marine mammal coordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Luna was in her territory and portfolio.
Her name was Marilyn Joyce. She did not seem nervous in front of the assembly, but she did not seem fully at ease, either. She read from a statement, looking down and up with that hint of wariness and self-conscious precision that tells you that this person thinks she had better be careful what she says.
“We really did hope that Luna could just go on his way without us interfering with him,” Marilyn said, with a kind of half-apologetic glance up at the audience, in which I read both embarrassment and something that seemed a little harder.
“Who knows what he has on his mind,” Marilyn continued. “But anyway, we’re making decisions for him now.”
* * *
We were on Orcas Island for two days. The next day, the wind had changed direction and picked up, and it seemed colder now. Late in the day, we headed back to our chilly boat and the rough journey home across the shipping lanes, a windblown strait, and the border. So we thought mostly about rough water and the approaching darkness. But we could not help thinking about the whale known as Luna.
It was like starting to read a five-book series of novels on the third book. Who were these people and what was going on? What was this unexpected life from the alien world of the sea that for some reason sought the company of humans? Why was that wrong? And what were those human emotions that people had to put aside?
We moved out of sheltered water near a wooded lump of rock called Battleship Island. We went through a tidal rip where the wind fought the current. The rip tossed us around, and we bounced out of the chop into the longer waves of the strait, dusk rising like fog. We knew that sometimes there were lost logs out there, and our boat was small and fragile. We both stared hard at the thrashing water just ahead. We couldn’t afford to look up into the distance. But if we looked backward into the past, the early history of the little whale was right there, in the waters near Battleship Island.
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm