Arguably, it is because of Lolita that we no longer refer to the orcas as “killer whales.”
Amid the sea of crocodile tears shed by those who in a variety of ways have exploited the life and death of Lolita the orca, and continue to exploit her memory, I feel strongly that I have something to say and contribute about her life and passing.
Lolita very predictably died at the Miami Seaquarium on August 18, 2023 at age 57, 53 years after her capture at Penn Cove, Washington.
Merritt and I often pass by the shellfish farm dock at Penn Cove, about 10 miles north of our home, where Lolita and her family were stolen from their sea in Puget Sound.
Sadness about Lolita & greedy, heartless humans
Each and every time we pass, a feeling of sadness wells up inside me of the fear that Lolita and her family experienced at the hands of greedy, heartless humans.
A friend tells me that as children growing up on Whidbey Island, she and her friends witnessed this calamity, and in their own ways tried to sabotage the whale captures, but to no avail.
At the time, on August 8, 1970, capturing Lolita or any other whale in Washington waters required only a fishing license. Nothing about it was illegal.
Only a decade earlier, and for many years before that, orcas were erroneously blamed for declining salmon runs, officially persecuted by several government agencies, and even occasionally bombed and strafed for target practice by jets from the Oak Harbor Naval Air Station.
The giant guns at Fort Casey were fired at orcas
The giant guns at Fort Casey, an Army base from 1901 to 1955, when the fort became a state park, were never fired at human enemies, but were fired at the now almost revered J, K, and L pods, whose populations were thinned more markedly by captures for exhibition than ever was accomplished by artillery.
To this day those orca pods have never recovered.
There was money to be made by the morally corrupt people who participated in this, directed by Don Goldsberry (1935-2014), who lived to regret the captures, and Ted Griffin, now 89, who recently told Seattle Times reporter Lynda V. Mapes that he regrets nothing.
Eventually these cruel people were stopped, first by Washington state legislation and then by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
I was 10 years old
I was 10 years old when Lolita, who was then about four years old, arrived at the Miami Seaquarium, not far from my parents’ home in Miami Beach.
My family and I were frequent visitors.
The Miami Seaquarium, opened in 1955, had originally been best known for hosting screen productions such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Flipper films and television series, for which Ric O’Barry was a trainer.
Ric, now a longtime friend, had already turned against the marine mammal captivity industry, attempting his first dolphin release in Bimini on Earth Day 1970.
But the Miami Seaquarium management managed––for many years––to bury any criticism that might have come their way as result of Ric’s protests beneath a tidal wave of hype for ‘killer whale’ and dolphin shows starring Hugo and Lolita.
Hugo and Lolita were not “killers” to us
Household names to us, Hugo and Lolita were not “killers” in our eyes.
Rather, they were very special ambassadors from distant oceans, exactly as the marine mammal captivity industry work with increasing intensity to portray them to audiences who over the ensuing half century plus have become increasingly skeptical that any animals want to be captive performers.
Hugo died in 1980, after furiously beating his head against the concrete walls of his tank for some time, and was secretly buried in a dump somewhere in Miami.
Only recently did I become aware of the circumstances of his death and disposal of his remains.
This left Lolita remaining without her companion, alone for another 43 years, until her recent death.
Lolita “kissed” me!
I grew up to become a Miami Beach police officer. One evening in October 1995 the Seaquarium was opened for police officers who were attending the annual conference of the National Association of Chiefs of Police.
Lolita, the star performer of my childhood, was then 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. But I did not see it as revenge at all.
I laughed with the audience and in a sense felt honored by Lolita’s trained prank.
Lolita’s death should have been no surprise
At that point I had not yet connected the dots that orcas, dolphins, and other unwilling residents of marine mammal parks are 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 kept at marine mammal parks as supporting cast.
Lolita’s death should have been no surprise to anyone giving her age and state of health. The late Russ Rector (1949-2018), who worked for 24 years for her relocation to a sea pen on Penn Cove, told us often during his terminal illness that it was an even bet whether Lolita could outlive him.
A cynical stunt
By the end of his life, Russ, a former Ocean World trainer who later helped to close Ocean World, reluctantly recognized that Lolita was no longer a viable candidate for relocation anywhere.
Yet news article after news article states that the so-called experts were surprised by Lolita’s sudden death. Anyone who closely followed Lolita should have known that it was very unlikely that she would survive a move back to Washington.
Lolita’s much publicized, supposedly planned return to Washington––with no permits even applied for––was a cynical stunt orchestrated by a select few who all had something to gain by this charade, whether it was political or financial.
Millions have been manipulated
To the very end of Lolita ‘s life, and now after her death, people are still using her for their own selfish motives.
I understand the deep sadness that many people feel about Lolita’s life and passing, but I firmly believe that millions of people have been manipulated into believing that Lolita at this stage of her life might have benefitted from a 3,357.2 mile trip to return her to the Puget Sound from whence she came.
In my opinion it was a folly suggested and promoted by those who had something to gain by it, whether by ensuring that Lolita did not die on their watch at the Miami Seaquarium, as she ultimately did anyway, or by setting her up for more distant observation at a sea pen in proximity to the Silver Reef Casino owned by the Lummi Nation, or by cleansing the distinctly soiled personal reputations of the men who moved the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis and forced Paul Watson out of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society he founded in 1978.
“An absolutely horrible idea”
To the general public, returning Lolita to Penn Cove seemed to be a kind act, but I disagree 100%. I saw this as yet another cruelty to be inflicted on Lolita. It was not in her best interest at this stage of her end of life.
I was hardly alone.
“All the people who have ever worked with Toki,” Lolita’s training name, “or know anything about her, know that is just an absolutely horrible idea,” her trainer from 2003 to 2009 Shanna Simpson told John Pacenti, executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent.
Now the animal curator at the Topeka Zoo in Kansas, Simpson gathered more than 35,000 electronic signatures on a “Keep Lolita in Florida” petition, suggesting that if Lolita was to be transported anywhere, she and her Pacific whitesided dolphin companions should be moved to the much larger and closer Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.
Simpson might be criticized for allegedly representing the interests of the captivity industry; but Simpson also knew Lolita. Most of those promoting the return to Puget Sound scheme never met her; many probably never saw her.
“Majestic, mesmerizing, and had a sense of humor”
Which brings me to my final and most important point regarding Lolita’s life. We are all in agreement that she and the other whales and cetaceans in tanks around the world should never have been removed from their homes and families.
Indeed, Ted Griffin may be the last defender of orca captures left on earth.
Lolita performed each day for millions of people through her years in captivity, and she did it with beauty and grace!
She was majestic and mesmerizing and yes, she had a sense of humor.
I also believe that Lolita knew and enjoyed making people happy. She could sense their joy and share in it. She was special and kind, and much like Keiko, the Free Willy! film star who swam to Norway and sought out children when finally released, Lolita loved to make the children at her shows laugh and scream in delight.
“Perhaps she enjoyed making people happy”
For me, ignoring what Lolita did for most of her life, which was positive and good, is discounting that perhaps she enjoyed making people happy. It is what she knew in her confined circumstances, and she made the best of it.
I acknowledge, and I hope that others do too, that Lolita’s life was not one of misery, but an existence in which she tried to bring happiness and joy to hundreds of thousands of her fans, who had nothing but love and appreciation for her.
Lolita was not just a money-making spectacle, as she was to the Miami Seaquarium owners, but was a very much loved ambassador for orcas everywhere.
“Brought great awareness to the cruelty of captivity”
Lolita also brought great awareness to the cruelty of keeping marine mammals in captivity, even to the many of us who were initially slow on the uptake.
Arguably, it is because of Lolita that we no longer refer to the orcas as “killer whales.”
No other whale, not even Keiko, touched as many human lives.
Lolita’s death was not in vain, as many say it is. She lived the best life she could, and found her happiness and comfort in her daily life with humans.
To not acknowledge this is the greatest insult to Lolita’s life and legacy!