May 11, 2015
The Saga of the Northwest’s Last Remaining Captive Orca
By A. Michael Kundu
Photo at right: A J-pod orca spyhops off Whidbey Island with Mount Baker in the background. Photo by Jim Maya
Aug. 8, 1970, Penn Cove, Whidbey Island, Washington. The steam-engine breaths of panicked orcas fill the air.
Terrified and shrill, their high-pitched calls echo across the cove, as more than 80 orcas—the entire southern resident killer whale population—are violently herded and corralled by a flotilla of speedboats brandishing underwater explosives, nets and ropes.
All around them, men’s voices shout frantically as the nets are drawn tighter…
What follows is the story of a Northwest tragedy. It is a story about Tokitae—whose Coast Salish name means “nice day, pretty colors” but was changed to Lolita by Miami’s Marine Seaquarium—a 49-year-old orca torn from the Northwest’s Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population.
Lolita’s saga began almost 45 years ago. Yet even today, while her mother L-25 still swims free in waters including our local Salish Sea, the calls for Lolita’s liberation grows continuingly louder here in the Northwest.
Whale hunters Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin speed their boats between the whales, ripping terrified calves from their mothers, wrapping them so tightly in the nets that, in the process, four calves (baby orcas two years of age and younger) drown.
To Goldsberry and Griffin, the dead calves were simply a “cost of doing business,” after all, each of these whales could fetch them over $20,000 from Sea World or other marine parks across the country.
From 1965 to the mid-1970s, killer whales (also referred to as the orca whale) from Northwest waters were hunted relentlessly to fuel the new marine park industry.
Lolita wasn’t alone. Since her capture, 60 orcas were harvested from Washington: 75 percent of them sent to marine parks around the world, and 25 percent killed in the process. Worldwide, of the approximately 141 wild orcas hunted for such parks, 125 are now dead, having survived only a median life of only four years.
Bob McLaughlin, a board member with Project SeaWolf, an orca advocacy group from Marysville, Washington, says of these statistics, “that is really noteworthy, since the average lifespan of a wild orca whale is 50 years for males, and upward of 90 for females like Lolita.”
After the “selection” process is over, the remaining whales flounder outside the nets, free to return to open water. Instead, they remain clustered along the cove, vocalizing pitifully toward their netted companions.
In the aftermath, eight whales, including four-year old Lolita, are loaded, swaddled, and prepared for truck-bed shipment. Goldsberry and fellow hunter John Crowe get to work on some “damage control” efforts at the shoreline. Stealthily slitting open the bellies of the remaining dead whale calves, they fill the carcasses with rocks and steel chains, sinking the bodies under the waves to “hide” the casualties.
Lolita — Sole Survivor
Forty-five years after she was seized, Lolita remains the sole surviving captive orca from the SRKW population, which includes three pods of approximately 81 killer whales known collectively as J-clan.
What makes Lolita so different from other orcas taken or bred into captivity is that despite living in one of the smallest tanks in the world, she is still alive.
When she arrived at the Miami aquarium in 1970, she was housed with another Washington resident orca male named Hugo, captured two years earlier in Washington.
Unfortunately, while the two shared a small tank and provided each other companionship for almost a decade, Hugo became known as the first captive orca to “commit suicide” by bashing his head into a concrete wall. Lolita’s only companion died at the estimated age of 15.
“Since then, her life in captivity over the years has surely taken a toll on her,” says Howard Garrett, of Lolita. Garrett is a whale advocacy guru and founder of the Orca Network on Whidbey Island.
“Psychologically, physiologically, emotionally. After so many years, we have a moral obligation to win Lolita’s freedom so that she might have peace and a better second half of her life,” Garrett adds.
Although there have been five orca calves born to the J- and L-pods over the past several months, the J-clan (made up of J-, K- and L-pods) has ceased to grow substantially in number since those captures of the ’70s when many healthy breeding-aged orca adults and calves were torn from the population.
Today, added threats of environmental contamination and declining prey has put the population on the brink of extinction.
“It’s feasible to think that, in a few more generations, J-clan could be gone altogether,” says Garrett. “But by bringing Lolita back here to her family, we could build on the momentum to address the great ecological threats to these pods and maybe change the outcome for the future of her free-ranging family.”
Sustaining the Orca Pods
In addition to the moral and ecological rationale, Lolita’s release has considerable scientific value today, particularly at a time when wildlife populations across the globe (including the SRKWs) are rapidly disappearing.
“Learning how to build our knowledge of rehabilitating and returning captive whales into the wild is a critical science,” says McLaughlin of Project SeaWolf. “We need to get much better at re-introducing wild species if we are going to successfully stave off the extirpation of orcas and other species, as natural populations decline.”
While it is obvious that Lolita’s current habitat, a 75- by 80- foot concrete tank that is 20 feet deep, is inadequate for a whale that would normally swim between 75 to 100 miles per day, there is little doubt that Lolita’s captors will ever willingly release her.
“She is not for sale, and she is not being released,” said Robert Rose, curator for the Miami Seaquarium, who was quoted in a recent article for the Miami Herald. Not surprisingly, Rose and his staff, who have made Lolita perform in at least two whale circus shows daily, have been making money off Lolita for decades.
Their reluctance to advance the field of orca conservation may be driven by the aquarium’s owners, the UK-based Arle Capital Partners, a private equity investment firm targeting the energy and natural resources market.
“It’s seems ironic that a corporation with that kind of focus would, at the lower levels, impede progressive science by not even considering the conservation benefits of trying to rehabilitate and release Lolita,” says McLaughlin.
Now, a recent government decision to formally include Lolita as a member of the federally endangered SRKW population has energized orca advocates.
While this potentially leverages legal challenges against the Miami Seaquarium, and strengthens the argument to free Lolita, Garrett and other advocates have raised the stakes by simultaneously developing a detailed, science-backed proposal to return and “retire” Lolita to a sea pen in Washington state—in the waters where she would have direct contact with her remaining family.
“After the years she’s sacrificed in her tiny tank, retirement to a sea pen is the right thing to do for Lolita,” says Garrett. “Our rehabilitation proposal has no significant risk to Lolita, but the potential benefits, not just for Lolita, but also for whale science and conservation, makes this the clear path to take.”
What will ultimately happen to Lolita will likely be determined by a blend of public opinion, legal challenges, financial factors, and the commitment of countless advocates and progressive champions of science and animal welfare.
“Above all, we need to understand that Lolita, like other higher functioning, sentient species, deserves to be back home with her family,” Garrett says. “She has sacrificed incredibly over these last four decades—she deserves to come home to the place she was born, to spend the second half of her life with her family.”
Canadian photojournalist A. Michael Kundu specializes in marine wildlife conservation and environmental issues. He currently lives in Lake Stevens, Washington.
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