'We’re coming to liberate her': The fight to free killer whale held captive for 50 years

One of seven orcas captured using nets and explosives then sold to aquariums, Lolita lives out her days being forced to perform tricks twice a day for visitors

Andrew Buncombe
Saturday 22 June 2019 19:00 BST
Campaigners push for Miami aquarium to release killer whale 50 years after capture

Lyla Scover still broods over the screams she could hear as the boatmen herded the whales into the most shallow part of the bay. It was the sound of creatures in trauma and agony, she says, and it echoed over the town.

“Everybody I talk to about the event remembers the sound,” says the 85-year-old, seated at a farmers market on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, as people mingle to buy strawberries, rhubarb and the season’s first cherries. “It was not the sound you hear if you listen to recordings of them underwater, talking to each other. It was wailing. It made you aware they could feel it.”

More than 50 years after seven young southern resident killer whales were captured here using nets and explosives, then sold to aquariums, only one is still alive. Now, Scover’s memories of what happened in August 1970 are central to a campaign to free the last whale, known variously as Lolita or Tokitae, and return her to the waters of the Puget Sound. Local experts, who study family groupings through matrilineal lines, say many of her relatives, and possibly her mother, aged in her 80s and named Ocean Sun, are still alive.

This month, the campaign took on new momentum, when Indigenous Americans, members of the Lummi Nation who have claimed the whale as one of their own, carved a totem of her, and made a 7,000-mile round trip to the Miami Seaquarium, where twice a day she is made to perform tricks for visitors. Outside the park they blessed the 16-foot carving and gave Lolita a Lummi name, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, taken from a village that once stood at the site of her capture. On the return leg, they held events to spread awareness, including one in Coupeville.

Freddie Lane, a member of the Lummi Nation council, says it is a sacred duty to fight for the return of Lolita, who he says was “abducted”. He also fears time is running out; campaigners believe that after decades of effective solitary confinement in chlorinated water, the whale’s health is declining and she may be going blind. Reports say her tank, measuring 80 feet by 60 feet, and 20 feet deep, is the smallest killer whale aquarium in the country.

“It’s not just an animal or a killer whale. It’s our relative that rightfully belongs to the Salish Sea,” he says, claiming the Seaquarium offered to sell the killer whale back to them, something he considers an insult. “So we’re coming after her…They are not entertainers, they’re enslavers of our relative. And we’re coming to liberate Lolita.”

Lolita (the name given to her by the aquarium) believed to be in her mid-50s, is a southern resident orca, an eco-type or subspecies of killer whale that feeds almost exclusively on Chinook salmon. The whales are fighting for survival as those salmon have themselves declined in number. Listed as a federally endangered in 2005, there are around just 75 southern resident orcas left, though this spring whale watchers were thrilled by news that a new calf had been spotted.

The campaign to release Lolita has taken on a dual-pronged approach. In December 2018, a lawsuit brought by activists on the grounds the Seaquarium was violating the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by confining Lolita, was turned down by a federal appeals court. Lane believes a fresh legal challenge can be made on the basis that tribal laws have been broken.

Meanwhile, others are trying to pressure the aquarium by turning public opinion against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. This month, the Canadian parliament passed a law that banned keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, though it said those already in aquariums could remain.

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Howard Garrett, who with with his wife, Susan Berta, has run the Orca Network, a campaign group, for 20 years, claims visitor numbers at the Miami facility have fallen as awareness of Lolita’s plight has grown.

“The one survivor, almost 50 years after the event, is somehow still alive – it’s touch and go at the moment, very precarious – but she brings the story out,” he says.

Garrett has seen Lolita perform in Miami. “She has been manipulated every day, twice day, for 50 years, in a little bath tub that doesn’t have any life in it.”

Some have questioned the feasibility of releasing Lolita into the wild after all these years. They point to the story of Keiko, an Icelandic-born killer whale captured and sold to the marine park industry, which featured in the Free Willy movies produced by Warner Brothers in the 1990s.

A $20m (£15.7m) campaign to free the whale was launched after it was discovered sick in a Mexico City aquarium. He was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then airlifted to Iceland in 1998, but despite efforts to prepare him for the wild he swam instead to Norway and lived in Taknes Bay, and never reconnected with other killer whales. He died in 2003, after becoming sick.

Every day, twice a day, Lolita is made to perform stunts for visitors (Reuters)

In 2017, the Miami Herald reported many scientists believed the stress of releasing Lolita could be catastrophic.

“I think people on both sides of the conversation have to step back and say, ‘What’s best for this particular animal at this particular stage of her life?‘” Douglas Wartzok, professor of biology at Florida International University, told the newspaper. “It’s not an easy answer, but my opinion is it’s probably better to leave the animal where she has lived for the past 47 years.”

Campaigners in the Pacific Northwest say they have learned from the errors associated with Keiko’s release, and have a more comprehensive plan, which would see her released first to a sea pen in the San Juan Islands, with round-the-clock provision of food and human attention.

“I remain hopeful [she will be released] because everything is here for her,” says Sandra Pollard, a British writer who lives on Whidbey Island, and is the author of two books on Lolita, including A Puget Sound Orca in Captivity: The Fight to Bring Lolita Home. “They have a site for her on Orcas Island, and she will have perhaps the greatest expert on the southern resident orcas nearby.”

The Miami Seaquarium is owned by Parques Reunidos, a Spanish company that operates 60 zoos and parks in a dozen countries. It is in no hurry to let go of its star attraction. In a statement the facility said it respected the efforts of the Lummi Nation to draw attention to the “critically endangered killer whale population in the Pacific Northwest”.

But it added: “There is no room for further debate on what is best for Lolita. Marine mammal experts have already concluded that moving her from the home that she has known for the past 48 years would be ill advised.

“For almost five decades we have provided for and cared for Lolita, and we will not allow her life to be treated as an experiment. We will not jeopardise her health by considering any move from her home here in Miami.”

Asked about accusations Lolita was going blind, a spokesperson said: “Lolita is as healthy as ever and continues to thrive.” The park declined to provide visitor numbers. It described claims by activists the park had offered to sell Lolita as “simply false”.

Steve Eelkema, a potter and artist, runs a gallery at the end of Penn Cove, where Lolita and the other whales were captured. He was not present in 1970, having been drafted by the military for the Vietnam war, but grew up hearing about it. He says people have become more aware of the intelligence and sentient nature of the whales, possibly because of events such as Lolita’s capture.

He says that, while other parts of Whidbey Island routinely see orcas, he has seen them in Penn Cove just three or four times in the 15 years he has run his gallery.

“There’s some question if there’s a collective memory there of the event,” he says. “Evidently, they were more present at the time that it happened. But since then, very seldom do they come back. It’s kind of sad.”

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