SEATTLE — Canada is postponing until next spring the effort to return Luna the killer whale to his home waters in Washington state, and will match the $100,000 pledged last weekend by the U.S. government, Canadian Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault said Thursday.
Experts say the delay will give Luna his best chance of reuniting with "L" Pod, his family, Thibault said.
Luna has been in remote Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island since he became separated from his family more than two years ago. Authorities had hoped he would rejoin L Pod on his own, but that has not happened. Instead, he has grown increasingly aggressive in his interaction with boats, posing risks to both himself and people.
After consulting with experts, Canada decided earlier this month to attempt the move.
"I recognize the tremendous Canadian and international interest in the well-being of this animal," Thibault said in a news release.
"A relocation is best done in the spring when weather and the proximity of the pod are optimal."
A delay also would provide more time to prepare for the complicated move and raise money for it. Canada has estimated it could cost $350,000 overall, though some of that may involve in-kind contributions such as loaning a boat to transport the whale.
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans will collaborate with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and others, including independent scientists, Thibault said.
Luna’s pod leaves the waters around the San Juan Islands, about 200 miles southeast of Nootka Sound, for parts unknown in the winter and returns in the spring. Some activists have expressed concern about moving the whale in the winter.
"Rushing relocation at this time presents a very uncertain outcome," said John Ford, head marine mammal scientist with Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific Region.
"It’s gale force and above out there. This is not the time," said Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, though he added, "It’s too bad this has dragged on as long as it has."
Others note there will be more boat traffic in the spring and that a delay means a longer separation for Luna.
Fred Felleman of the Orca Conservancy said he hopes the time will be used to assess Luna’s health, consult with local tribes about the undertaking and enlist the U.S. Navy’s help in tracking Luna’s family over the winter.
"Many of us feel a personal connection to this animal because it is the heart of our region," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who helped secure the U.S. money. "I am confident that this connection will bring everyone together as we move forward to save Luna."
Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans worked with public and private groups to successfully relocate an orphaned Canadian orca — 2-year-old A-73, also called Springer — from Puget Sound to waters near Vancouver Island, where she rejoined her family.
Luna, known to scientists as L-98 for his birth order in L Pod, is 4 years old and has been away from his family for more than two years. His mother now has a new calf.
"Each of these cases is definitely a learning experience," said Marilyn Joyce, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ marine mammal coordinator in Vancouver.
The next step is for us to sit down with Department of Fisheries and Oceans and develop a joint plan to reunite the whale with its pod, said National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman in Seattle.
For the past 15 months, keeping track of Luna has been the responsibility of volunteers financed by the Canadian government.
Over the winter, Luna may receive some training to discourage him from approaching boats and seaplanes.
"I think we can do some reconditioning and hopefully change his focus," said Jeff Foster of Auburn, who helped move Springer last year and likely will have a role in Luna’s relocation.
"The only thing he has right now is boats and people on the dock."
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