Friendship across animal-human boundaries


Set on the coast of Vancouver Island, “The Whale” narrates the real-life quest of a lonely orca, or killer whale, for human friendship. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS) will screen this poignant documentary at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 25.

Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Marine Mammal Center will attend the screening and answer questions.

Narrated by Ryan Reynolds — the Canadian actor known for “The Green Hornet” and “The Proposal” — “The Whale” examines the ethics of human-animal interaction and the capacity of animals to communicate with people.

Co-directors Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit take full cinematic advantage of the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of Vancouver Island’s inlets and bays. It doesn’t hurt that Luna, the black and white baby orca that is the film’s subject, is also beautiful to look at.

Orca families usually stay together for life. That is what makes the case of Luna, the young orca stranded off the coast of one of British Columbia’s largest islands, so unusual.

Because orcas almost never separate from their pods, how Luna, less than two years old at the time, lost his family remains a mystery. He simply showed up in Nootka Sound one day, calling for his pod.

Before long, Luna would pop up, headfirst, at docks or beside boats, craving attention. Sometimes he’d wave his tail or use his blowhole to make noises, other times he’d balance a piece of wood on his nose like a puppy.

It became clear to the humans who watched his antics that this killer whale was trying to communicate with them. Orphaned from his whale family, he wanted to substitute friendships with humans. He even started helping out in the local lumber industry.

Unfortunately, Canadian fish and wildlife officials decided that the human attention Luna was winning might be harmful for him. No more touching Luna, they decreed, and threatened fines of up to $100,000.

One woman was taken to court and fined $100 for “disturbing a whale.” She called it, “The best $100 I ever spent.”

Even after Center for Whale Research scientist Ken Balcomb was given a boat and funds to lure Luna out to sea and help him find his pod, the government refused the offer. The controversy over Luna continued for several years without resolution.

During a memorial for a deceased tribal member, a local aboriginal group became involved and predicted that Luna was going to die. Luna was four years old, but a normal orca lifespan is the same as for humans.

“The Whale” is the second documentary these filmmakers have made about Luna. Their first, “Saving Luna,” was released in 2007.