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Wednesday, June 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The long journey home for Luna

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The young orca known as Luna watched with interest yesterday as biologists assembled the 90-foot net pen they hope to capture him in today.

In fact, the 2-ton whale was so inquisitive that Canadian fisheries officials had to lure him away with a boat to keep him from nuzzling divers at work on the structure in the deep waters of Nootka Sound.

"We don't want him close to people, because the whole point is to de-acclimate him from humans," said Lance Barrett-Lennard, research scientist at the Vancouver Marine Aquarium, which is overseeing the $250,000 effort to reunite the wayward whale with his family in northern Puget Sound.

But after three years of living solo near the town of Gold River on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the whale has observed humans at close range and may not be easily tricked when the team tries to lead him into the pen using his favorite fishing boat as a lure, Barrett-Lennard concedes.

"It wouldn't surprise any of us if he sees that net coming and says 'No way.' "

Canadian government experts have decreed that the whale, also called L-98, must be moved for his own safety and the safety of boaters.

The attention-hungry whale created a sensation in the small town, where he showed up at the local dock after separating from his birth pod, perhaps as they migrated north from Washington's San Juan Islands. He quickly became a nuisance as he bumped against boats, trailed fishermen and even pushed one boat away from shore when its occupants tried to paddle in. Two people were prosecuted for petting and harassing the animal, and others reportedly tried to pour beer in his blowhole and brush his teeth.

Last week, the 4-year-old male nearly collided with a floatplane, surfacing right in front of the aircraft as it was landing.

Inspired by the case of Springer, an orphaned female reunited two years ago with her birth pod in British Columbia, a group of Canadian and U.S. experts has been laying plans to move Luna later this summer. The schedule was accelerated after last week's near miss with the floatplane.

If the whale can be lured into the pen, he'll be held there for medical tests that will take about a week, Barrett-Lennard said. Then he'll be loaded onto a specially equipped truck and driven nearly 200 miles to the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where another pen will be waiting in an isolated cove. Biologists will set him free when his birth pod — including his mother — swim past. L-pod recently was sighted in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Canadian and U.S. governments each contributed $100,000 to pay for the effort, with about $50,000 more coming from individual donations.

Expert opinion is mixed on the plan's chances of success, but one group of Canadians is convinced it's a bad idea.

Members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation believe the whale is the reincarnation of Ambrose Maquinna, a revered leader who died two weeks before the whale showed up.

"Our late chief's wish was to come back as a killer whale — the enforcers of the ocean," said Jamie James of the band's Gold River fisheries center. "We feel the whale should be left alone; let nature take its course."

Some biologists believe nature will kick in if the whale and his original family get within shouting distance of each other — about 12 to 15 miles for orcas, whose calls can carry great distances.

L-98 was born into the family called L-pod, the 98th birth since biologists started monitoring the resident Puget Sound whales in 1974. Though he hasn't seen his family group in three years, the young male still speaks their language — though these days his audience is mainly a group of sea lions he socializes with.

"He swims along with them, they vocalize and he vocalizes along," said Paul Spong, who has been using underwater microphones to eavesdrop on Luna.

"He makes these great calls that you can hear reverberating in the deep spaces of Nootka Sound," said Spong, director of the OrcaLab whale-monitoring station off northern Vancouver Island.

With an array of clicks, whistles and long, melodic tones, each killer-whale group has its own vocal idiosyncrasies and phrases, Spong explained.

"The dialect he uses is a perfect match for the family he comes from, so they should instantly recognize each other."

Springer, the orphaned female, started leaping out of the water and pushing at her net pen when she heard the calls of her family group. As soon as she was released, she swam directly to them and has been part of the family group ever since, Spong said.

"She was doing really great the last time we saw her."

No one knows why Luna wound up alone, said Brent Norberg, marine mammal coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. One theory is that he was hunting with an uncle who died, leaving the young animal unable to make his way back to the group, which migrates between Puget Sound and British Columbia.

It's also possible he was kicked out of the pod, in which case they might not be enthusiastic to have him back, Norberg said.

Puget Sound's population of resident killer whales are on the Washington state endangered-species list and are being considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The population, which numbered up to 120 animals in the early 1960s, was depleted when more than 50 young whales were captured for aquariums before the practice was banned. Numbers climbed in the '80s and '90s, but recently have dropped to 82 animals.

Luna's reintroduction could help the population, although his birth pod already has several young males, Norberg said.

But first, the whale has to be tempted into the net pen.

If that fails, backup plans call for either trapping him in a fishing net or lassoing him, as was done when Springer was captured near Vashon Island, Barrett-Lennard said.

Both could be problematic with Luna, who is twice Springer's size and much healthier.

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that it works," Spong said.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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