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Sooke Harbour: News: Luna Killer Whale

Luna's family surfaces at Sooke
Chance of natural reunion takes a dive, experts say

Judith Lavoie, Times Colonist 
Tuesday, June 08, 2004

It was difficult to detect the family resemblance as the black dorsal fins sliced through the water near Sooke Monday.

But for whale experts, the orcas swimming in the Juan de Fuca Strait confirmed that L-Pod is back in its summer feeding grounds. That means the chance has plummeted for a natural reunion between Luna, the lonesome orca hanging out in Nootka Sound, and members of his family.

male member of L-pod whales
A male member of L-Pod, Luna's family, forages for food off Gordon Beach Monday. The pod was also sighted off Clover Point in Victoria earlier in the day. PHOTO CREDIT: Deddeda Stemler, Times Colonist

The whale turned up in Nootka Sound three years ago and, without an orca family, he turned his attention to boats, floatplanes and people.

Two plans were put together by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for reuniting four-year-old Luna with his pod.

Hopes ran high for the option which would have seen Luna led to the mouth of Nootka Sound as L-Pod was in the area.

However, most of the pod chose to come down the east coast of Vancouver Island, instead of the more usual west coast route, and a decision is likely to be taken today on whether Plan B should start rolling.

Luna would be captured in a net pen in Gold River, then trucked down the Island to Pedder Bay where he would be put in another net pen until the pod passes by.

DFO marine mammal co-ordinator Marilyn Joyce said a decision will depend on whether the operation should go ahead despite a funding shortfall and whether there is any hope that a natural reunion is still possible.

Although most members of L Pod, including Luna's mother and sibling, are already in the Victoria area, a small number of the pod are missing and could still be off the Island's west coast where they were spotted last month.

Paul Spong of Orcalab and Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, agree that the lead-out method is now a long shot.

But there is still a remote hope that Luna could be persuaded to join K Pod if it comes within acoustic range, Spong said.

"Luna's natural place is beside his mom and with his immediate family, but I think he would be very comfortable with the K's because he spent much of his early life with them," he said.

Balcomb said most people are assuming the move will now have to go ahead.

There should be few problems transporting the whale and it is almost certain that Luna will give up his affection for boats if he is in the company of whales, he said.

"We will be watching him as much as we can to see if he is acting normally socially," Balcomb said.

Fascinated tourists watched the orcas Monday afternoon as they were given a quick Luna lesson.

"We have a little, lost whale," Brandon Harvey, skipper and biologist for Prince of Whales, explained to his Zodiac passengers.

The whale-watching industry has been told monitoring vessels will enforce a two kilometre no-go zone around the pod if Luna is brought to the Juan de Fuca Strait, Harvey said.

"If we see him we're to hit the throttle and get out of there. We're to act as if he's the plague," he said.

The summer range of the L-Pod whales can be from the Strait of Georgia to the San Juan Islands and over to Jordan River, and they can cover 100 nautical miles a day, so Luna's presence would complicate life for whale-watching vessels.

However, it is recreational boaters -- not the regulated whale-watching industry -- which is likely to be the problem, said Harvey, as a small blue boat sped into the middle of a line of L Pod whales.

There are mixed feelings about the risks of a move and what the future will hold if Luna continues to cosy up to boats.

"But we all ultimately want the best for the whale. I hope he eventually figures out that he doesn't want to be single any more," Harvey said, steering the boat into Pedder Bay where the net pen will be set up.

The area, flanked by Department of National Defence land and William Head prison, has a history for killer whales, Harvey told his passengers.

It is the area where, in the late 1960s and 1970s, whales were driven and captured for aquariums.

"This is going to be a place of controversy once again," he said.

jlavoie@tc.canwest.com

Copyright 2004 Times Colonist (Victoria)

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