Let's Talk About Lolita
By: Niki Gianni DMV and CWI Board Member
Lolita the orca is finally set to be retired to a peaceful seaside sanctuary in her homeland, the Pacific Northwest, after nearly 53 years in captivity at Miami Seaquarium.
Who is she? Lolita, also called “Tokitae” by her trainers or "Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut" by the Lummi Nation, was captured around 4 yrs of age from her family pod in the wilds of Puget Sound, Washington in August 1970. The capture was so violent, five orcas drowned in the netting, amidst underwater bombs and seaplanes (footage of the infamous Penn Cove capture). Six young orcas - all of whom died by 1986 - as well as a small calf soon to be dubbed “Lolita,” were sent to aquariums as far away as Japan, France, and Germany.
In the wild, orcas remain with their mother's pod for their entire lives, but Lolita was sold for a mere $6000 to Miami Seaquarium (MSQ) and shipped off to Florida, more than 3,000 miles away.
Since that fateful day, she has spent the last five decades in the smallest permanent orca tank in the world. Initially, she was housed with Hugo, an older male orca captured 2 yrs earlier, but he died of a brain aneurysm after repeatedly bashing his head against the tank walls in 1980. Following Hugo’s death and subsequent disposal in the Dade County Dump, Lolita has been housed with a myriad of dolphin species - unsuitable "companions" for such a highly social, intelligent being!
The small concrete tank she has lived in since her brutal capture is not much larger than a hotel pool - approximately 35 ft x 80 ft in size. It has a depth ranging from 12 feet sloped around the edges to just 20ft in the center, when Lolita herself is about 21 feet in length.
Lolita has no shade from the blisteringly hot Miami sunlight and no reliable protection from deadly hurricanes. MSQ is not a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Lolita’s tank violates USDA’s Animal Welfare Act requirements.
Since the 1990s, many top cetacean scientists such as Ken Balcomb, Ingrid Visser, Naomi Rose have advocated for Lolita’s humane retirement. With mounting pressure from the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” and an overall changing opinion on orca captivity, many more have since joined the movement! Lolita’s tragic tale has no doubt inspired thousands of activist and compassionate folks worldwide.
Who is her family? Lolita's family pod - part of the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas - still roams the Pacific Northwest and is studied on a near-daily basis by groups such as Orca Network and The Center for Whale Research.
Lolita’s vocalizations most closely match those of “L-pod.” An orca known as “Ocean Sun,” is believed to possibly even be Lolita’s mother. Orcas from this group of individuals have been recorded living 80-100 years of age! By this reasoning, Lolita, at approximately age 57, has a lot of life left to live!
What has changed? When MSQ was sold to “The Dolphin Company” in spring 2022, they were forbidden from using Lolita in performances, due to the condition and status of her crumbling tank. (Up until that time, when the USDA ordered she be moved off public display, she performed in two circus-like shows a day for the last half century.) Over the last year, she has remained behind closed garage doors, sealed away from the public eye.
Her health was said to be “failing,” but with upgraded filtration/chilling systems on her pool and constant medications, she has significantly improved, per monthly veterinarian reports.
How do you move a whale? Following approval from NOAA and APHIS/USDA, as long as Lolita remains healthy and strong, the logistics of transport should be quite simple. Orcas have been flown across the globe since the 1960s without a single individual ever recorded to have died in transit.
Sacred Sea/Orca Network have detailed proposals on Lolita’s retirement: https://sacredsea.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/OrcaNetworkPlan.pdf
Over the next ~18-24 months, as projected by "Friends of Toki, ”Lolita and her two long-term tankmates Lii and Loke, two Pacific-white sided dolphins, captured from California in 1988, will be trained to enter canvas slings for transport. Much like how they arrived at Seaquarium in the first place, they will then be loaded onto trucks, taken to the airport, and flown via cargo plane back to the west coast, where all three were born!
They will then be retired to a spacious, deep, multi-acre seawater pen, many times larger than her current tiny tank, likely off the coast of the San Juan Islands.
Many worry “How will she survive after 53 years in captivity?” She will not simply be dumped in the ocean and left to fend for herself.
Instead, Lolita, Lii, and Loke will remain under human care with handlers familiar to them and some of the world's most renowned marine mammal veterinarians. The trio will be able to catch live fish, if they so choose, while having food and medical care provided as needed.
The secure pen will provide protection from possible predation (although orcas have evolved over the last ~50 million years to have no natural predators) and boat traffic. They will be able to feel the tides of the mighty Pacific Ocean, rub on rocks, and roll in kelp for the first time in decades, freed from barren cement walls! Daily assessments of water quality will be checked for optimal animal health.
Lolita would presumably be able to communicate once again with her family pod. While the current plan is not to ‘free’ her, the opportunity for her to reconnect with her pod has not been ruled out pending how she adjusts to the sea pen.
With the support of influential people who know Lolita well, such as Marcia Hinton, her trainer of many years, and Dr. Jim McBain, perhaps the world’s foremost orca veterinarian, this CAN happen!
Who is paying for all this? The sanctuary, including construction of the pen itself, staff salaries, upkeep on the facility, will be funded primarily by NFL billionaire Jim Isray of the Indianapolis Colts. It is unclear if The Dolphin Company/MSQ will contribute funds. SacredSea, Indigenous-led non-profit committed to promoting ancestral knowledge and practices for the protection and revitalization of the Salish Sea, is collecting donations for the sea pen: https://sacredsea.org/product/donate/
CompassionWorks International opposes all captivity of marine mammals for the sake of human entertainment. Orcas do not belong in concrete tanks for the amusement of people! We strongly support moving Lolita, Loke, and Lii to a more suitable, natural place of retirement. Her current tank is cruel, antiquated, unsafe, and a blight on the city of Miami.