Lolita: Fame and Misfortune
By Christina Colvin
Before Lolita knew life under a blistering sun at a Miami theme park, she swam as a wild whale with her family off the coast of Washington State. Today, she is the most famous orca living in captivity.
In 1970, when she was just four years old, Lolita (originally named Tokitae) became one of more than 80 orcas stolen from their native Pacific waters by whale hunters bankrolled by the captivity industry. Shortly after her capture, the Miami Seaquarium bought Lolita for about $20,000. She has lived in Miami ever since.
For the Seaquarium, Lolita represents a star money-making attraction, a possession so prized that officials maintain their grip on her despite years of protests by activists and animal experts who cite evidence that her living situation is legally and ethically unacceptable.
For people who object to the exploitation of intelligent animals for human entertainment, her situation represents a perfect storm of what’s wrong with keeping orcas in captivity. Indeed, few individuals have inspired people to care about and create change for captive cetaceans as has Lolita.
Photo by Drones for Animal Defense
Lolita currently resides in the smallest orca tank in the United States. It measures just 80 feet long, 60 feet wide, and a shallow 20 feet deep.
Experts claim that Lolita’s tank is so small that it violates the standards of the Animal Welfare Act, legislation that outlines the bare minimum of acceptable standards of care for animals held for exhibition and research.
Would Lolita Remember Her Family?
Lolita’s family being rounded up for capture
From NBC Dateline 1996: Biologist Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research recorded Lolita’s extended family, the L Pod, greeting each other around the San Juan Islands. Dateline played the recording to Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. She appeared to recognize the calls:
When she first came to the Seaquarium, Lolita lived alongside Hugo, another killer whale captured from the same region, perhaps indeed from her own family, the L Pod.
Lolita and Hugo lived together for about 10 years until Hugo, after years of slamming his head against the sides of the tank and breaking his rostrum, died of a brain aneurysm in 1980.
Since Hugo’s death, Lolita has lived without the company of any other orca, a devastatingly lonely life for a member of a family-oriented, social species.
Of all the whales seized during the 1970 roundup of Southern Resident Killer Whales, Lolita is the only one still alive. All the other whales died prematurely following their capture, some mere months after being ripped from their family groups.
Although Lolita does not share her life with other orcas, two other captive cetaceans – a pair of Pacific white-sided dolphins – reside with her at the Seaquarium. The trio’s situation does not paint a picture of interspecies harmony, however. In fact, reports show that the dolphins frequently harass and injure Lolita. In 2015 alone, the dolphins raked her skin over 50 times, leaving her with open, bleeding wounds as a result of their using their teeth to scrape her body.
Given that Lolita and the dolphins share a tank that is a mere 80 feet long across at its widest point, neither orca nor dolphin can seek refuge from each other when conflicts arise. They are trapped.
Lolita abandoned during Hurricane Irma, by FreeLolita
When Hurricane Irma devastated the Miami coast in the September of 2017, Miami Seaquarium abandoned Lolita in her tiny tank, totally exposed to the treacherous elements. According to former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg, Lolita’s exposure during Irma placed the imprisoned orca in considerable danger:
“Her tank is not deep enough for her to submerge and find refuge from flying debris. And, in an ironic turn of events, she even faces the potential of drowning if the surface of her tank becomes sufficiently blocked by falling detritus. Or maybe the filtration system will fail, and she’ll have to spend days or weeks floating around in her own excrement. Her tank may overheat if the power goes out and this could easily lead to a slower death from disease and injury.”
How many more months or years must Lolita endure the cramped, tiny quarters of her tank quarters that continuously put her health and safety at risk?
As animal advocates and Seaquarium officials continue to fight to determine her future, Lolita continues to circle her tiny pool. She performs regularly for a paying public. She lives without the company of fellow killer whales.
At the Whale Sanctuary Project, we want Lolita to represent neither the promise of profit nor the ills of captivity. We want her to have the space and resources to be herself for the first time since she was four years old and only knew the protection and nurturance of her family – a family that still swims the waters of the Pacific Northwest where she was born.