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‘Friendly’ orca interacting with boats

A killer whale in British Columbia is getting a little too frisky with rudders

A killer whale that strayed from its pod has become something of a nuisance for some Pacific Northwest boaters.

Luna, who since 2001 has been living in Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is apparently so comfortable with boaters that he sometimes gets too close to their vessels. “He really likes to interact with boats,” says Lara Sloan, communications officer for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “He plays with rudders, rubs against them.”

Luna also has knocked transponders off sailboats, says Sloan. “Maybe he doesn’t like the noise,” she says. Unfortunately, the 5-year-old 4,000-pound whale accidentally has disabled several boats, breaking rudders and other appendages. In early July a couple vacationing from Alberta had to have their 39-foot sailboat towed from Mooyah Bay after Luna broke its rudder.

The problem escalated to the point where fisheries officials discussed relocating Luna so he could reconnect with his pod. There are 19 pods in British Columbia waters, and fisheries officials say Luna’s family is an endangered pod off southern Vancouver Island.

Killer whales rarely stray, and officials are uncertain how Luna ended up alone. The whales are found in all the world’s oceans but are more common in the cold waters of Iceland, Norway, Japan, Antarctica and the Pacific Northwest.

Members of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations tribe protested the relocation plan and paddled canoes out to surround the whale, preventing fisheries officials from capturing him. The tribe believes Luna is the reincarnated spirit of a late chief, says Sloan. When a chief dies, according to tribal legend, his spirit returns as either a wolf or a whale. The reincarnated chief watches over the tribe for four years, and at the end of that tenure, the tribe hosts a celebration.

The tribe’s celebration is slated for November 2005. Until then, officials have agreed to allow Luna to stay in the sound. In the meantime, they have issued warnings to boaters, urging them to steer clear of the whale. Here are some of the guidelines:

• Don’t attempt to attract or interact with the whale.

• Don’t touch, feed or throw objects at him.

• If approached, don’t slow down or stop; motor away as quickly as possible.

• Report incidents involving inappropriate behavior immediately.

Each encounter with humans encourages him to seek human companionship, which compromises his opportunity for living a natural existence. Killer whales are extremely intelligent, and even a minimum amount of contact will reinforce their behaviors. It is also illegal to disturb marine mammals in Canada. Violators face potential fines of up to $100,000 (Canadian).