As Mowachaht / Muchalaht Tyee Ha’wilth Mike Maquinna throws a cedar bough into Muchalat Inlet, he remembers the impact Tsu’xiit the killer whale had on the world.
“Everyone learned a lot about killer whales and their habitat, and also learned who we are as Mowachaht / Muchalaht people,” said Maquinna. “He was a part of our community, and we hold him in very high regard. In our culture, the killer whale is very significant, and everyone is saddened by the news a kakawin [killer whale] has died in our territory,” he said.
Tsu’xiit (a.k.a. Luna, L-98) was born near the San Juan Islands on September 19th, 1999, and was found alone in Nootka Sound in July 2001, three days after the passing of Mowachaht / Muchalaht Tyee Ha’wilth Ambrose Maquinna.
Just before he died, Chief Maquinna told Chief Jerry Jack he planned to return as a kakawin after his death. Luna’s arrival in this northern Vancouver Island inlet was seen as a spiritual reflection of his deep love for his people, community, and hahoulthee (traditional territory).
Separated from other resident orcas, Tsu’xiit began bumping boats, sometimes peeling underwater transponders off hulls as the sound waves emitted from fish finders and depth sounders bothered him.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) saw this as a problem, and joined with the Vancouver Aquarium and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in a planned move to capture him, truck him down island, and release him near his familial pod near Puget Sound, home of the highest concentration of boats on the west coast of the continent.
Documents obtained through the Canadian Access to Information program show many within DFO and the DFO Scientific Panel saw the plan as ill-fated. Behind the scenes, DFO was negotiating with Marineland Aquarium in Niagara Falls Ontario, to take the whale if the reintroduction failed.
As DFO sought to capture Tsu’xiit in June 2004, the Mowachaht / Muchalaht First Nation launched their canoes and led Tsu’xiit away from the government boats tempting the young whale towards an underwater pen. After 9 days of the two groups leading Tsu’xiit up and down Muchalaht Inlet in what the world media described a ‘tug-of-war’, it all seemed lost one stormy afternoon.
High winds shot down Muchalaht Inlet from the open Pacific causing 5-foot white-capping waves that were no match for the inexperienced paddlers. The high-powered DFO boats were able to finally lure Tsu’xiit into the pen tucked behind a former freighter dock and secured barbed wire fences.
“Our Elders and our traditions told us to stand beside Tsu’xiit just as we would one of our own, and let him know that he wasn’t alone,” said Maquinna. “Our interest was in letting nature take its course, and in keeping Tsu’xiit free,” he said.
A quarter mile away, the Mowachaht / Muchalaht Nation gathered on the community dock, and sang Chief Ambrose Maquinna’s paddle song at the top of their lungs, one last time for Tsu’xiit. Tears flowed as drums pounded, but then the weather broke. The winds subsided and the seas calmed as paddlers piled back into the canoes for one last try. As they sang, drummed, and paddled towards the pen, Tsu’xiit darted out before the gate could be closed, and the community members erupted with joy as DFO gave up on their capture and relocation plan.
Tsu’xiit remained free, feeding on Chinook salmon, playing with local sea lions and communicating with transient whales. Although still fascinated with boats, Mowachaht /Muchalaht stewards were out on the water with him as much as possible, keeping him away from smaller sailboats and sport fishing boats seeking interaction with the famous whale.
Then, at 9 a.m. Friday March 10th, Tsu’xiit’s fascination with boats turned deadly.
The General Jackson, a large104-foot tugboat pulling a fully loaded log dumping barge was just heading out of Nootka Sound, with its 1700 horsepower engine spinning a 6’foot diameter propeller at full torque.
As the crew snapped pictures of Tsu’xiit playing alongside the ship, the whale dove under the stern and was sucked into the blades of the massive prop. There was nothing that anybody could do.
The distraught skipper radioed the Canadian Coast Guard and told them what had happened. Mowachaht / Muchalaht boats in the area sped to the scene, but Tsuxiit was gone.
Back on shore, Chief Mike Maquinna waited for word, unable and unwilling to accept the death until there was proof.
As the Mowachaht / Muchalaht boat finally came back to the dock late in the afternoon, solemn-faced fisheries worker Sam Johnson Jr. walked towards Maquinna, who reached out to shake his hand. As soon as their hands gripped, Johnson started to cry. “It’s never going to be the same out there again,” was all Johnson could say before he turned and left.
Four days later, more than 130 members of the Mowachaht / Muchalaht and neighboring Gold River community gathered to remember Tsu’xiit at a special dockside ceremony.
“Since time immemorial we’ve stood by each and every animal and living thing within our territory,” Maquinna said to the crowd. “For the past few years, we’ve been honored by the presence of the whale. We have a lot to be proud of as Mowachaht / Muchalaht people, for upholding our beliefs of letting nature take its course, and keeping Tsu’xiit free,” he said.
After a few songs were sung, and prayer chants performed, the canoe came out and spread sacred cedar boughs on the water. Community members then gathered for a luncheon, and talked about how much Tsu’xiit meant to them.
“It’s the best experience that has ever happened to me, being so close to something like that was so powerful,” said Mowachaht / Muchalaht fisheries manager and Tsu’xiit guardian Jamie James. “I’ll always remember our encounters and our relationship. I’ll definitely miss his presence for sure.”
“He touched a lot of lives and he really brought our community together,” said Kelly John, whose image was beamed around the world in 2004 as he steered the Mowachaht / Muchalaht canoe, and dangled his fingers in the water, touching and rubbing Tsu’xiit’s teeth and tongue. “The world saw us standing together as a strong community with a strong culture, and he’s part of our history now,” he said.
“Every day when we went out on the water, we looked forward to seeing him,” said Tsu’xiit guardian Rudy Dick who helped attract the whale from the DFO pen in 2004. “I didn’t want to see him in an aquarium, I wanted him to remain free, but there will be a big missing presence when I go out there again.”
Mowachaht / Muchalaht plan to hold a formal celebration for the life of Tsu’xiit in July.
By David Wiwchar