Lolita the orca whale may return to Puget Sound
MIAMI, Florida––Lolita, the 57-year-old orca whale who has become a white elephant after 53 years in the 67-year-old Miami Seaquarium, may be returning home to Puget Sound, Washington, before the end of 2023.
That might afford Lolita, also called Tokitae at capture, a comfortable retirement in a sea pen where she might dive deeper than a foot short of the full length of her 22-foot body.
Such a move might also ease a long headache for Eduardo Albor, president of The Dolphin Company, the Mexican-based owner of the Miami Seaquarium since March 2022, who has technically owned Lolita but has not been allowed to exhibit her––or even display her photograph in promotional materials––under the conditions of the Seaquarium operating permit issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Can getting Lolita out of the Whale Stadium get Pritam Singh out of the doghouse?
The scheme to move Lolita may also provide positive publicity––for a while, anyway––to Friends of Toki cofounder Pritam Singh.
Singh has been unpopular among marine mammal advocates since orchestrating a hostile takeover of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in mid-2022, forcing out founder Paul Watson.
In September 2022, as that controversy peaked, Singh announced he would commit $1 million to freeing Lolita.
Will Jim Irsay be forgiven for moving the Colts?
In addition, sending Lolita home might help Indianapolis Colts football team owner Jim Irsay, the primary prospective financier of the move, at estimated cost of $15 to $20 million, to shake recollections that he presided over moving the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.
Though the relocation was successful both at the box office and on the playing field, Irsay is still remembered in Baltimore much as Walter O’Malley is remembered in Brooklyn, 65 years after moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles.
A 2014 drug bust resulting in a misdemeanor plea bargain and a six-game suspension from running the Colts did not enhance Irsay’s image.
Already receiving kudos
Albor, Singh, and Irsay are already receiving kudos on Lolita’s behalf from around the world, as is Howard Garrett, founder of the Orca Network, who has for more than 25 years campaigned to “Free Lolita!”
Reality, though, is that Lolita, already among the oldest orcas whose approximate age is well-documented, may die right where she is, in the closed Seaquarium Whale Stadium, smothered in the same sea of bureaucratic and promotional hogwash that has kept her in captivity for far longer than any other whale but one.
That one is Corky, at SeaWorld San Diego, whose return to her home waters has only sporadically been an activist campaign objective.
Captured from Pender Harbour off the coast of British Columbia on December 11, 1969, Corky was sold initially to Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verde, California, and then relocated to SeaWorld San Diego after SeaWorld bought and closed Marineland of the Pacific in 1987.
Can Lolita go home again?
Lolita, initially called Tokitae, was hauled out of Penn Cove at the Penn Cove Shellfish farm dock in San de Fuca on August 8, 1970. Her captors were Seattle Aquarium builder Ted Griffin, now 88, reportedly living in Tacoma, Washington, and fellow speculator in captive marine mammals Don Goldsberry (1935-2014).
Six other young orcas were captured at the same time; three others reportedly drowned in the capture nets, and only Lolita lived long afterward.
Sending Lolita home, explained Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris soon after Albor, Singh, and Irsay announced their agreement to do so at a Miami Seaquarium media conference, is far more easily said than done.
“Every step of the way will require permits from all levels”
Singh, focusing on logistics, described the construction of “a special travel aquarium tank that fits on the back of a flatbed truck,” which “would get loaded into the belly of a giant airplane, something like a Boeing 747 or a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, like the U.S. Air Force uses,” in which Lolita would be flown to an airport in Washington, near Puget Sound, would be taken to a barge, and then be barged to the yet-to-be-built netted sea pen for Lolita.
The final step would be to use a crane to the travel aquarium tank into the water for release into the sea pen.
Wrote Harris, “Every step of the way will also require permits from all levels, from Miami-Dade County to Florida to Washington state to an alphabet soup of government agencies.
Can Lolita survive the move?
“Will she survive the move?
“This is the number one question dividing many marine scientists and whale advocates in the decades-long debate over Lolita’s fate.”
Friends of Toki, “along with PETA and other marine mammal and animal rights groups,” Harris summarized, “argue that Lolita will be fine after a years-long transition period in a sea pen with trainers teaching her how to survive in the wild.
“But in the only example of the technique so far, the orca Keiko who inspired the film Free Willy only lived for five years after leaving his tank,” Harris recalled. “Four of those years were spent in a sea pen. Keiko died of pneumonia one year after a full release,” after swimming from his release point off Iceland to coastal Norway, where he sought out human company and begged for meals from fishing boats.
“Marine scientists also worry that the pollution and diseases in the open ocean may be too much for the immune system of a whale who has spent half a century in an 80-foot-long by 35-foot-wide by 20-foot-deep tank,” Harris continued.
“However, there are challenges to living in captivity too. Hugo, Lolita’s onetime mate, died in 1980 of a brain aneurysm after repeatedly ramming its head into the side of their tank.”
Former Miami Seaquarium trainers Shanna Simpson, Carley Gonzalez and Tricia Nicewicz expressed extreme skepticism of the Lolita release plan to Christina Vazquez and Chris Gothner of television station WPLG in Miami, not least because of her age and a recent history of illness, several years after having been retired from public performance.
“We now have all the elements needed”
Howard Garrett and others argue, however, that Lolita’s mother is still alive, at estimated age 89.
“We now have all the elements needed to move Toki home,” Garrett posted to the Orca Network page on Facebook. “First of all Toki herself, looking good, eating well, active and engaged, probably ready to travel. She’s also probably bored much of every day and night, as she has been for almost 53 years. She needs to be home for her physical and emotional health.
“Now more than just a team”
“This is now more than just a team,” Garrett said of Albor, Singh, and Irsay.
“They’re a force field able to plow through the permitting process, sea pen site selection and design, legal processes, budgeting handiwork, public involvement and presentation, all in a spirit of shared affection, respect, and reverence for Toki.”
Russ Rector, arguably the original instigator of efforts to spring Lolita from the Miami Seaquarium, though Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry picketed the Seaquarium on her behalf first, died on January 7, 2018 after 24 years of trying to have the Seaquarium closed for multiple Animal Welfare Act violations.
“Russ started investigating Lolita’s tank in the early 1990s,” recalled his widow, Linda Rector, “and I do have many articles and paperwork documenting that he got the Miami Seaquarium fined ––but to no avail.”
Formerly an Ocean World dolphin trainer for seven years, and then a building contractor, Russ Rector made closing Ocean World his first goal, upon starting the Dolphin Freedom Foundation in 1992. Two years later, in 1994, Ocean World did close.
“Yelling ‘Free Lolita!'”
Soon after that, Rector recalled in a 2017 email to ANIMALS 24-7, “I was contacted by [orca researcher] Ken Balcomb,” of Friday Harbor, Washington, “and his son Kelly. Howie [Howard Garrett, half-brother of Balcomb] was still a mailman and was not involved at all. We had a very long meeting at a mutual friend’s house.
“During that conversation with Ken,” Russ Rector said, “I gave him the benefit of what I have learned while closing Ocean World. I told him not to start yelling ‘Free Lolita!’ because as they did at Ocean World [in reference to dolphins] all they would do was say she’ll die, and that ends the conversation.
“I told Ken to go back to Friday Harbor, get a place for her set up, and have it running, so once I could prove that Lolita’s tank was too small and she must be moved to a compliant situation within 30 days, that Ken could then raise his hand and say, ‘I have the solution.’
“Instead he went back to Friday Harbor and started yelling ‘Free Lolita!’ to every news organization that would listen.”
Closure strategy failed
Russ Rector, however, was unsuccessful in his strategy, which centered on pressuring the Miami Seaquarium to remove a work island used by trainers in performances from the middle of Whale Stadium, Lolita’s habitat.
The work island left the Whale Stadium swimming space much smaller than is required by the federal animal welfare act, but because Lolita lived at the Whale Stadium before the Animal Welfare Act was extended to cover marine mammal parks, a series of unsuccessful lawsuits brought by PETA and the Orca Network ended with a ruling that the Miami Seaquarium could be obliged to remove the island only by an act of Congress.
Meanwhile, “Acting on a tip from employees,” the Miami New Times recounted, Russ Rector “videotaped what appeared to be serious structural problems with the main performing stadium.”
But various levels of authority failed to respond. Rather than being closed, the Miami Seaquarium was eventually obliged to make half a million dollars’ worth of repairs.
What would Russ Rector say now?
Russ Rector today, Linda Rector told ANIMALS 24-7, “would be his cynical self, stating this [the announcement by Albor, Singh, and Irsay] is all great, but is there a solid plan in place approved by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service yet?! Everyone is grand-standing and saying how wonderful it all is going to be one day when she goes back, but the only difference between now and then,” when Russ Rector was campaigning, “is that the park is good with it now. It’s still a crap shoot.
“So,” Linda Rector finished, “I hope Russ is guiding the direction from above and will call in his favors with his NOAA and APHIS buddies. If anyone could convince them to approve it, it would be Russ!”
“Protesting since the day Lolita arrived”
Said Ric O’Barry, the former Miami Seaquarium trainer who founded the Dolphin Project in 1970 and has been working for the release of captive marine mammals ever since, “I hope it’s true that Lolita is finally going home. There is something inherently obscene about a magnificent whale dying in a concrete stadium.
“I read the media release with mixed emotions and cautious semi-optimism,” O’Barry told ANIMALS 24-7.
“We have been standing in the hot sun outside Miami Seaquarium protesting since the day Lolita arrived,” O’Barry recalled. “None of the people involved in this announcement have been. We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.
“However,” O’Barry added, “this does send a clear message to the captivity industry that it’s time to empty the tanks, including all of the tanks in the 31 other captive dolphin facilities owned by The Dolphin Company.”
“It’s not going to happen,” says Paul Watson
Paul Watson, who formed the Captain Paul Watson Foundation in 2022 to continue his work, was openly skeptical in an open letter to media.
“It’s not going to happen,” Watson said on March 30, 2023. “Lots of talk for years and very little action. Friends of Lolita led by a Florida property developer [Singh] who orchestrated a hostile takeover of Sea Shepherd and ousted myself, the founder of Sea Shepherd, an organization I led for 45 years. I was appalled to see that Sea Shepherd is now partnered with the Miami Seaquarium in what I believe is a charade. They have no permits , they have no sea pen, they have no actual plan, but they will surely be soliciting funds.”
“The Cult of Animal Celebrity”
In a June 1995 essay entitled “The Cult of Animal Celebrity,” Watson observed that, “Within the animal protection movement, there are two types of animals: those with individual names and those without. The movement is accordingly split between advocates for animals with names, and advocates for all the rest.
“Free Keiko, free Lolita, free Corky. These are wonderful and appealing ideals, but not all captive cetaceans can or should be freed. Not all facilities holding marine animals are the enemy. And the huge sums raised to free a few individuals could be more positively directed toward ending the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of nameless whales, dolphins, and seals on the world’s oceans.”
“I was 10 years old”
Recalled ANIMALS 24-7 co-editor Beth Clifton, “I was 10 years old when Lolita arrived at the Miami Seaquarium, not far from my parents’ home in Miami Beach.
“My family and I were frequent visitors.
“The Miami Seaquarium was best known for the ‘killer whale’ and dolphin shows starring Hugo and Lolita.
“Household names to us, Hugo and Lolita were not ‘killers’ in our eyes, but rather were very special ambassadors from distant oceans, exactly as management later labored to portray them to audiences who had become increasingly skeptical that any animals want to be captive performers.
“Felt honored by Lolita’s trained prank”
“As an adult, I became a Miami Beach police officer. One evening in October 1995 the Seaquarium was opened for police officers who were attending the National Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference.
“Hugo had died in 1980, after furiously beating his head against the concrete walls of his tank for some time, but Lolita, the star performer of my childhood, was in her mid-career prime. The trainer asked for a volunteer from the audience to come up to Lolita’s tank to meet her. I enthusiastically volunteered.
“We were told by the trainer that Lolita was going to kiss me. Instead she came up out of the water spitting gallons of icy cold salt water in my face. It was hardly adequate revenge for Lolita’s many years of suffering in an environment that orcas were not meant to be in.
“Had not yet connected the dots”
“I laughed with the audience and in a sense felt honored by Lolita’s trained prank.
“At that point,” Beth acknowledged, “I had not yet connected the dots that these were powerful, highly dangerous animals, kept and used for the sole purpose of making money, even at the risk of human life.
“Many more years of experience and education brought me to awareness of the plight and suffering of captive marine mammals and other animals, including the seals, sea lions, penguins, and other species also kept, in lesser roles, at marine mammal parks.”
Beth, who is often saddened by driving past the dock where Lolita was captured, barely ten miles from the ANIMALS 24-7 office overlooking the Saratoga Passage, hopes her next view of Lolita will be somewhere nearby, in relative freedom.
But she knows the odds are probably against it.