A young orca whale wanders away and loses his family. He makes his way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. Alone and in need of companionship and company, the whale decides that if he cannot be friends with those of his own kind, then he would become friends with the next best thing—human beings. He will integrate into their lives, play with them, work with them, and have them fall in love with him as he apparently has with them. But is human interaction with this wild animal a positive experience or a negative one? Is it better for humans to interact with this whale, or leave it alone, maybe even help him find his family? Human interference with nature is a tricky balancing act, with both sides understandably wanting what’s best for the whale, even though they are of completely different mindsets.
That is what is at stake in The Whale (2011). Directed by the husband and wife team of Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisolm with narration by Ryan Reynolds, the documentary tells the sweet and touching tale of Luna, the orca whale that lost contact with his family and ended up in Nootka Sound, off the coast of British Columbia. In search of friendship, Luna initiated contact with the people who lived and worked there, quickly becoming a local celebrity and somewhat of a sacred religious symbol for the Native Americans who inhabited the area. For over four years, Luna would become a part of this community, gaining notoriety and press worldwide. It’s hard not to fall in love with Luna; very early on we see how intelligent, playful, and gentle this creature is. I found myself grinning numerous times when Luna would put himself in contact with the people. In the way that he would help the lumber company push logs down the water, to the way he would spring up and swim alongside the many boats that came by, it’s hard not to look past the warmth and cuteness that Luna so easily brings.
While Luna did bring a surprise attraction to Nootka Sound, he also brought along a number of problems. One such issue was the danger that Luna put himself in when he came so close to the boats, and their propellers. There was also the fear that Luna, while wanting to play with the people who came by, might accidentally tip someone over in the water and risk serious injury. There are a number of interviews between town officials, marine scientists, and local people that argue both sides of the case. Some believed that it was safer to help Luna find his family; others thought it best to let nature take its course and let Luna decide for himself where he wanted to be. One of the more humorous scenes of the film was when local authorities developed a security team that would dissuade people from interacting—or even looking at—Luna when they were in the water. Problem was, by discouraging people from being around Luna, they would only encourage Luna to interact with them, thus defeating the purpose of creating a security team in the first place!
One of the more serious parts of the film is when it was decided by the government that Luna be captured and brought to the waters where his family was closely located. What officials failed to mention, however, was that in reality Luna’s capture was for the purpose of bringing him to an aquarium much like that of Sea World. The most tension-filled moments depicted the tug and pull of the captors and of the Native American tribe determined to keep Luna out of a cage. At one point, Luna would follow authorities toward their nets, and then turn around and follow the beating drum and chants of the tribes. I wonder what Luna could have been possibly thinking. Here is an animal that so desperately wanted to be noticed by other beings, and during this stretch was receiving all the attention he could have possibly wanted. Did he have any idea as to what kind of danger he was actually in, or was all this just a fun time for him, and he was just going along for the ride?
Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit did not intend to get so involved with Luna’s story and the making of this film. They had originally traveled to Nootka Sound for the intent of making a short journalistic piece about him. However, as they interviewed the people who interacted with Luna on a daily basis, and mingled with him themselves, they quickly ended up loving him just like everyone else. The camera gets turned toward the filmmaker a bit here, as we learn about Chisholm’s and Parfit’s contribution toward Luna’s cause, and how far they were willing to go to make sure his safety was secured. So drawn in do they become, that at one point Chisholm participates in trying to get government assistance and Parfit goes so far as to sleep in a boat on the water to make sure that Luna was away from any outside danger. In most cases, it’s wise for a filmmaker to be a step removed from their subject matter, to give a better overall impression of the story they want to tell. This particular situation is an exception to the rule. This animal obviously moved Chisholm and Parfit, and as a result they became much a part of the story they were documenting.
I don’t know if this film goes far enough in bringing up issues about animal rights or animal abuse. There may be perhaps one too many shots that show off the kind and gentle nature that Luna obviously exhibited, and not enough time spent on how his presence affected the area both ecologically and economically. I didn’t feel that the arguments for Luna to be moved out of Nootka Sound were convincing enough to be taken seriously. But in the end, it’s hard to argue against a character that is as lovable as Luna. He was obviously a fun and social creature, and I would have loved to have had a chance to meet him. The Whale is a very caring movie about a rare but beautiful encounter. It may not change the world in the long run, but in the end, is an entertaining story for anyone that decides to see it.
Final Grade: B
The Whale will be playing for a week at SIFF Cinema at McCaw Hall in Seattle, beginning on September 9th.