Jailed at four years old, Lolita spent 45 years at the Miami Seaquarium in solitary confinement
MIAMI, Florida––The orca whale known to the world for most of her life as Lolita, 57, died on August 18, 2023 at the Miami Seaquarium, 53 years after her capture at Penn Cove, Washington.
Initially dubbed Tokitae upon capture, Lolita was also known to handlers and campaigners for her return to Puget Sound as “Toki.”
“Over the last two days,” the Miami Seaquarium said in a prepared statement, “Toki started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort, which her full Miami Seaquarium and Friends of Toki medical team began treating immediately and aggressively.
“Despite receiving the best possible medical care, she passed away from what is believed to be a renal condition.”
Was slated for return to home waters
Recalled Seattle Times writers Lynda V. Mapes and Isabella Breda, “Just a few days ago, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, the son of Ken Balcomb, chronicler of the southern resident orcas (see Sam Lipman, 32, & Ken Balcomb, 82, devoted their lives to whales) wrote in the Journal of the San Juans that after decades of effort, the last surviving captive southern resident orca might have been be coming home soon.
“Preparations were underway for her return, including getting her used to a sling to move her from her tank. Her health had improved, and she was energetic.
Continued Mapes and Breda, quoting former Lummi Nation tribal chair Jay Julius, “The naysayers say, ‘Well, she’s just going to die in her natural environment. I’m one who would much rather die next to family than in a prison cell.”
Getting good publicity was never a waste of money
Eduardo Albor, chief executive of The Dolphin Company, the current Miami Seaquarium ownership group, posted to social media that, “Not a single effort we made to give Lolita an opportunity was a waste of time and money.”
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, one of the financiers of the failed scheme to return Lolita to Puget Sound, more specifically to a sea pen that was to have been built in the Saratoga Passage, called himself “honored to be part of the team working to return her to her indigenous home. I take solace in knowing that we significantly improved her living conditions this past year,” Irsay added. “Her spirit and grace have touched so many.”
The return scheme might have afforded Lolita 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.
The Dolphin Company owned Lolita, but had no permit to exhibit her
The return scheme, had it succeeded, could have eased headaches and public relations issues for Albor, Irsay, and Friends of Toki cofounder Pritam Singh.
The Mexican-based Dolphin Company, under Albor, had owned Lolita since purchasing the 68-year-old Miami Seaquarium in March 2022, but had 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.
In addition, sending Lolita home might have helped Irsay to shake enduring recollections that he presided over moving the former Baltimore Colts 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.
Maybe getting Lolita out of the Whale Stadium could have gotten Pritam Singh out of the doghouse?
The scheme to move also provided positive publicity––for a while, anyway––to Singh, 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.
Also enthusiastic when the return scheme was announced was Howard Garrett, founder of the Orca Network, who for more than 25 years campaigned to “Free Lolita!”
Died right where she was
Reality, though, is that Lolita, among the oldest orcas whose approximate age is well-documented, died right where she had been since 1971, in the closed Miami Seaquarium Whale Stadium, smothered in the same sea of promotional hogwash that had 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.
Hauled out at shellfish farm dock
Lolita 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 89, 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. 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, was always far more easily said than done.
Keiko was the only precedent
Apart from the logistic aspects of flying Lolita home, as a much larger whale than she was when flown to Miami, “Every step of the way would also require permits from all levels, from Miami-Dade County to Florida to Washington state to an alphabet soup of government agencies,” wrote Harris.
The only example of a captive orca release, Harris pointed out, was the Keiko saga.
“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,” having swam 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.”
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, to ANIMALS 24-7 in March 2023, “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.
However, 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.
“Something inherently obscene about a magnificent whale dying in a concrete stadium”
Observed 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, “There is something inherently obscene about a magnificent whale dying in a concrete stadium.
“This does send a clear message to the captivity industry,” O’Barry added, “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 of the scheme to return Lolita to Puget Sound.
“It’s not going to happen,” Watson said in March 30, 2023 media statement. “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,” Watson said. “They have no permits, they have no sea pen, they have no actual plan, but they will surely be soliciting funds.”
“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,” Beth continued, “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.
“Felt honored by Lolita’s trained prank”
“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.
“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, hoped her next view of Lolita would be somewhere nearby, in relative freedom.
But she knew the odds were against it.