Close Encounter with a Killer Whale By Esther Kiviat
My great whale adventure began this past spring when I embarked for Canada on a long-planned trip to meet old friends at their farm in northern Alberta and join them on a thousand-mile cross-country road trip. Leaving home in Rhinebeck in mid-May, I flew west to Edmonton, Alberta, where my friends Ella May and Peter met my plane at midnight. A few days later we packed food, boots, and bulging backpacks and headed west to the coast of Canada and Vancouver Island.
Three days of driving and sightseeing brought us to the Strait of Georgia, the long passageway of the Pacific between Vancouver Island and the mainland. As I stood on a rocky beach on the Island, I realized that I was actually on the Pacific Ocean, over 4500 miles from my home in the Hudson Valley!
Peter announced he had made reservations for us and his son and daughter-in-law, who live on Vancouver Island, to stay at a floating fishing lodge on its west coast. The next day all five of us piled into a van and drove across the Island to the tiny town of Tahsis, where we waited for the boat that was to take us to Ceepeecee Lodge, a small salmon-packing plant now transformed into a compact but attractive guest house. Built on a barge, the Lodge is anchored in a secluded bay in Esperanza Inlet, leading into Nootka Sound and the open Pacific.
After a somewhat rough half-hour ride in the lodge owner’s thirty-foot fishing boat, with intermittent rain and a gusty wind, we arrived at the floating lodge. Just as we climbed onto the dock, a bald eagle flew low overhead, its great wings spread wide as it headed for a nearby cliff.
After a simple but delicious lunch, we eagerly accepted our host Roger’s offer to explore Nootka Sound despite a misty rain. Moving out from the sheltered bay, we found ourselves in the broad expanse of the Sound, surrounded by picturesque mountains, their tips shrouded in great masses of low white clouds. As we approached the open Pacific, strong winds and waves rocked the boat, and Roger decided it was time to turn around. Early the next morning we embarked in a fishing boat driven by a young man named Don, who was to take us to Mooyah Bay on Nootka Sound. There we possibly might sight an orphan baby orca, which had lived alone in Mooyah since the previous summer when it somehow became separated from its family group or pod.
As we neared Mooyah Bay, Don throttled down his engine and proceeded slowly into the orca’s territory. Soon he pointed to a tail fluke poking out of the water some distance away and immediately turned off the engine. We stood at the rail hoping the whale would surface to breathe, or perhaps to “spy hop.”
“Spy hopping,” I later learned, is a maneuver in which the whale rises vertically out of the water, ostensibly to spot prey. The orca kept its distance, until Don suggested that we throw a small float into the bay for the young whale to play with. As soon as Ella May tossed out the float, the orca surfaced, this time a few feet away. It swam excitedly back and forth and rolled over on its back directly alongside the boat where we were standing.
What a strikingly beautiful creature! It was smooth, glistening black, with a large oval white patch above and behind each eye and an all-white belly. All orcas have similar distinctive black and white patterns, although there are slight variations. The young whale had a short curved dorsal fin in the center of its back and two rounded paddle-shaped black flippers at the front of its body. Its tail, or fluke, was at right angles to its streamlined torpedo-shaped body; its rounded head seemed large in proportion to its body. Immature orcas of both sexes have short curved dorsal fins like the fin of this baby whale. Adult males develop very tall straight dorsal fins, sometimes as high as five or six feet, while adult females retain the short curved fins.
I was astounded at the size of the “baby” whale! I had anticipated seeing a small creature four or five feet long. Instead, this “baby” was about eighteen to twenty feet long and may have weighed a ton or more. A newborn orca is eight or nine feet long and weighs about 400 pounds. Mature females range up to 23 feet long, while male orcas may reach 30 feet. According to our host at the Lodge, Roger Bligh, the young orca was first sighted in Mooyah Bay at the end of the previous summer, after the pod had left, so it was about 18 to 20 months old when we saw it. Roger said it had grown a lot and had obviously eaten well during the winter, feasting on herring and other available fish.
No one knows how the spunky young whale, which later acquired the name of “Luna” and was found to be a male, had become separated from its mother and other family members. A female orca generally nurses her offspring for about a year, and mother and child maintain a close companionship for three or four years longer. Members of orca pods usually remain together even longer: for decades. Pods range in size from about four to thirty related individuals, usually including one adult male, three or four mature females, and several juveniles of both sexes.
Perhaps Luna had gone off on a solo exploration while its pod was pursuing a school of fish or perhaps its mother had died, as was the case of another young killer whale found deserted in Puget Sound near Seattle. At the time we were getting acquainted with the Mooyah Bay orca, the Puget Sound whale, “Springer,” was captured by scientists and transported to the northern tip of Vancouver for a reunion with its family pod, which had been located through complicated computer analysis.
Orcas or killer whales, like all species of whales, are mammals. Killer whales are so-called not because they attack humans, but because they are the only specie of whale that preys on warm-blooded animals such as seals or sea lions—though the bulk of their diet consists of squid and fish and an occasional sea bird. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. They are found in every ocean of the world.
Orcas were thought to be fish until the 1750s, when Liinnaeus classified them as mammals and placed them in the order Cetacea. Like familiar land mammals, female whales are air-breathing, bear their young alive and nurse them from mammary glands. Unlike land mammals, however, they do not have hair or fur. They are believed to have evolved from land creatures millions of years ago. Perhaps in the course of evolution they lost hair and fur which would have impeded their locomotion through water. Cetaceans are divided into two groups: toothed whales, which include the orcas and several other species, and baleen whales, which have horny plates in their jaws, used to filter in small organisms and other food.
Luna seemed unafraid of us. He became very playful, swimming rapidly all around the boat, dashing repeatedly underneath it and returning to where Ella May, her daughter-in-law Maja and I leaned breathlessly over the side, while Peter and his son Len had climbed up to the cabin roof to photograph the whale. From time to time, Luna scraped against the boat near us as if to say “Come out and play with me.” He allowed us to reach over and gently touch his head and back. When Maja made a kind of clicking or low humming sound, the young whale began to talk back to her with his own combination of clicking-humming-whistling sounds. What an incredible happening: to have a truly wild creature, a denizen of the deep sea—not a captive dolphin in an aquarium—communicate with us in every way that it could! It was an almost surreal experience, mystical, even spiritual, one that will remain in my memory forever.
Luna stayed close to our boat for almost an hour, playing, swimming, talking, seeming reluctant to have us leave. Don could not start the motor for fear of injuring him. We had planned to go farther out to Nootka Island to explore historical Friendly Cove (Yuquot), which Captain James Cook reached in 1778, but other activities seemed unimportant as long as the young orca remained nearby. Eventually Luna swam far enough away from our boat so Don could safely start the motor. We sped away, leaving the lonely little whale by himself once again, as we returned to Ceepeecee Lodge in time for lunch.
Later that afternoon Roger ferried us back to Tahsis to pick up our car for the cross-Island drive to Len and Maja’s home. As night descended on the forested road, we talked sadly about the future of the orphan baby. Our Island visit ended a few days later and Ella May, Peter, and I left reluctantly to catch a ferry and drive back to Alberta. We had an exciting return trip on a different route than we had driven west, with many fascinating places to explore, but our adventure with the orca remained uppermost in my mind.
Back home in Rhinebeck in mid-June my thoughts often returned to the extraordinary encounter with the young wild creature. I called Maja at intervals for news of Luna to find out if his family pod had returned in July, as Roger hoped might happen. When I telephoned Roger in late July, he told me he had sighted several orcas in Nootka Sound but none seemed to make contact with the orphan. When I asked him what he thought might happen to Luna, Roger said he felt the young orca was healthy and happy being left on his own, as long as he had plenty of fish to catch and boaters to socialize with, and that he would continue to thrive. Roger was adamantly opposed to any form of “rescue” for Luna, as had happened with the Puget Sound orphan.
When we met Luna, his presence in Mooyah Bay was relatively unknown to anyone but local boaters, loggers, and fishermen, along with a few tourists and the crew of a commercial passenger-cargo ship that makes weekly trips around Nootka Sound. After we left Vancouver, a kind of orca fever arose in the area because of the publicity surrounding the rescue of Springer from Puget Sound and her release off the northern tip of the Island. Word of Luna spread rapidly. A television crew photographed him, newspapers wrote about him, many tourists and others came to see him, and the Department of Oceans and Fisheries of Canada stepped in to protect the young whale.
Canada’s national regulations specifically prohibit disturbance of marine mammals. Concerned that he might get cut by a propeller, or tip over a kayak as he socialized, the Canadians are monitoring the situation. Len told me recently that the department is now trying to keep tourists out of the area, and that scientists are studying young Luna to see if they can find out why some killer whales seem to prefer human companionship to that of their own relatives or other wild whales.
Nearly five thousand miles away I write about Luna and remember my incredible encounter with the baby orca. I hope he will be happy as he matures, whether he remains alone in Mooyah Bay, associating only with boat people, or in some miraculous way his own family finds him and Luna may choose to return to a more wild existence.