Teaching a killer whale to swim with a human being and do tricks in exchange for food was invented on the Seattle waterfront in 1965. Its inventor was a 29-year-old businessman named Ted Griffin. He owned the Seattle Marine Aquarium (not to be confused with Seattle Aquarium), and he once told PBS he had dreamed of swimming with whales and dolphins since he was a kid.
In 1965, someone who knew about Griffin's ambitions alerted him that a killer whale had been caught in a fisherman's net off the coast of Canada. Griffin bought the whale, which he named Namu, and brought it to the Seattle waterfront, where he trained it to perform tricks and allow him to ride it. It turned him into an overnight celebrity; in no time, he had a key to the city, a movie deal, and a side business capturing killer whales in the nooks and crannies of Puget Sound. Griffin's business partner was a Tacoma fisherman named Don Goldsberry, and their clients were marine parks around the world and even the US military.
At the time, the assumption was that orcas were dangerous. No one had any inkling how smart and sensitive these creatures are. As the journalist David Neiwert writes in his 2015 book Of Orcas and Men, killer whales have larger and more densely folded brains than humans do, suggesting they hold more information and process it faster than humans do; they have highly elaborated sections of their brains thought to be related to long-term memory, self-awareness, and focus; and they have a paralimbic lobe "absent in humans and other land mammals" that "may enable some brain function we can't even envision because we lack it."
In the 1960s and '70s, scientists also didn't know that there are pronounced differences between types of killer whales. (The differences are so pronounced that some scientists have argued they should be classified as different species.) In Puget Sound, there are two types of killer whales—southern residents and transients—and even though they appear identical, they are nothing alike. Southern residents eat mostly salmon, while transients eat mammals (they're infamous for skinning Hood Canal harbor seals like grapes and leaving their skins to float on the water, horrifying kayakers). Southern residents and transients don't hunt together, don't vocalize the same way, don't use echolocation for the same purposes, and don't interbreed.
Southern residents are also intensely loyal to their family and remain with their mothers until they die. Family members are never farther than a few miles from each other, always within acoustic range, even while hunting, and they maintain physical contact when they sleep.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Washington and British Columbia were the source of every captive killer whale captured until 1976 (except one). Seventy percent of those killer whales were southern residents. Aside from a netting license from the Department of Fisheries, there were no laws about hunting, capturing, or killing them whatsoever. And capturing them was big business.
In 1965, seeking a companion for Namu, Griffin harpooned a female southern resident from a helicopter near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. She thrashed around for two days and drowned in front of her female calf. Griffin and his team scooped up the traumatized orphan and sold her to SeaWorld for a reported $75,000. (The company wanted the rights to the name Namu, but Griffin refused, so they settled on calling the young female Shamu. By the time she died six years later, her name had become a brand. Every killer whale that performs at SeaWorld is called Shamu.)
The peak capture year for southern residents turned out to be 1970. In July of that year, an "estimated" 200 killer whales were seen from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, according to an article then in the Seattle Times. We now know that estimate was way off, because according to the federal government's estimates, there were only 80 southern residents on the planet at the time.
A week or so later, on August 8, 1970, Griffin and Goldsberry spotted those same orcas in Admiralty Inlet, west of Whidbey Island.
"They had aircraft, they had spotters, they had speedboats, they had bombs they were throwing in the water, they were lighting their own bombs with acetylene torches in their boats and throwing them as fast as they could to herd the whales into coves," says activist Howard Garrett in the documentary Blackfish, which briefly depicts the August 1970 capture but doesn't discuss any of the killer whales involved.
Evidently aware of what was happening, the orcas changed direction when they saw Griffin and Goldsberry coming for them. "They knew what was going on, they knew their young ones would be taken from them," says Garrett, who is also a cofounder of the nonprofit Orca Network.
While the male orcas split off east of Camano Island, the females and their calves dove deep and went west of Camano Island, a waterway that leads to Deception Pass and the open sea. This escape plan might have worked, but "they have to come up for air eventually," Garrett says, and the capture team had aircraft in addition to speedboats and a 65-foot purse seiner. The lookouts in the sky "alerted the boats and said, 'Oh no, they're going north, the ones with babies.'"
So the captors changed course and herded the mothers and calves into Penn Cove, a body of water that Whidbey Island's town of Coupeville looks out on. "Motorists... left their cars by the roadside while going in search of a better viewpoint to marvel at the unusual scene," writes Sandra Pollard in her 2014 book Puget Sound Whales for Sale.
Some 80 killer whales were entrapped in Penn Cove that day, more than at any orca capture before or since. There are only three pods of southern residents—named J, K, and L by scientists, each an extended family led by matriarchs—and all three pods were present in Penn Cove, according to Canadian biologist Dr. Michael Bigg's later assessment of photographs. That means the oldest living killer whale known to science, J2, aka Granny, who is believed to have turned 104 years old this year, was there.
One of the youngest members of L-pod was also present, recorded to be a 14-foot-long, approximately 3- to 4-year-old female.
"The waters churned and boiled white with agitated whales fighting to escape from the confining nets," Pollard writes in Puget Sound Whales for Sale. "Their desperation and terror was all too apparent as they spy-hopped repeatedly, raising their strikingly colored black-and-white heads from the water"—to look around—"coupled with high-pitched shrieks and cries echoing across the usually tranquil cove."
John Crowe, an 18-year-old diver hired by Griffin and Goldsberry to help, explained later that separating fiercely protective mothers from their calves was excruciating and time-consuming. It required waiting until a mother and calf were far enough apart and then running a net between them. The fishermen would then create openings in the nets to free the adults, which didn't want to go anywhere without the calves.
"During a frenzied attempt to reach the calf from which she had been forcefully separated, a twenty-foot female became entangled in the nets and drowned," Pollard writes.
That was day two. It would turn into a two-week-long ordeal.
In the end, seven calves—including that 4-year-old female—were lassoed, harnessed, and lifted out of Penn Cove in August 1970. They were sold for a reported $20,000 each to marine parks in Texas, Japan, Australia, Miami, and England. Each was lifted out of the water, put on a flatbed truck, and driven to Seattle. The first one's trip, by way of the Washington State Ferries, provoked "considerable excitement and curiosity along the highway and among the ferry passengers," Pollard writes.
Some Whidbey Island witnesses were intrigued by what was happening in Penn Cove, and others were appalled.
Vern Olsen, who was there, told me recently, "It was the weirdest sound I have ever heard in my life. Like babies crying but much louder."
"What you really felt were the cries of both the small ones and the adult ones," said another witness, Lyla Snover, in a 2003 documentary Lolita: Slave to Entertainment. "I remember I stopped over there right close to them with my children who were very small at the time, and they kept saying: 'Why are they crying? They're crying.'"
"It's one of the most horrible things I've ever witnessed in my life," another witness, Barbara Stevens, said in the same documentary.
The adult female's drowning was reported in the Whidbey News-Times, the Seattle Times, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer soon after, fueling the fury of animal-rights activists who'd been protesting outside the Seattle Marine Aquarium ever since Namu came to town. But the adult female was not the only killer whale killed in Penn Cove. What none of the witnesses saw at the time—what one of the captors later admitted to covering up—were the deaths of at least three calves who got caught in the nets trying to escape and drowned.
Crowe admitted later that he and two other men were ordered to cut the three dead calves open, "fill them with rocks, put anchors on their tail, and sink them." They carried out this task under cover of night. For months, the deaths of these calves went unknown. Then their bodies started washing ashore. Their carcasses were still stuffed with rocks and chains. At least one was still attached to a 75-pound anchor, according to the Everett Herald.
SeaWorld acquired the Seattle Marine Aquarium and its orca-capturing side business in 1973. Crowe was prepared to testify about his role in the Penn Cove captures and cover-up when Washington State sued SeaWorld in 1976, alleging their capture practices were not humane. After two weeks in court, the parties settled, and one of the terms of the settlement was that SeaWorld could not capture any more orcas in this state. Seattle Marine Aquarium closed in 1977.
Years later, Crowe said that what bothered him most about the Penn Cove captures was his memory of the last calf—the 4-year-old—being lifted out of the water. He looked up at her and "lost it. I mean I just started crying. I didn't stop working, but I—you know, I just couldn't handle it. It's like kidnapping a little kid away from her mother... It's the worst thing I can think of."
Dr. Jesse White, a veterinarian who'd flown to Seattle to make a selection on Miami Seaquarium's behalf, described the 4-year-old calf as "so courageous and yet so gentle." He named her Tokitae, a Coast Salish greeting meaning "nice day, pretty colors."
"I think he named her Tokitae to honor her Northwest roots," Howard Garrett of the Orca Network told me, "and that was specifically what they"—meaning Miami Seaquarium—"didn't want people to know about. Within two weeks, they renamed her."
They renamed her, disgustingly, Lolita.
One of the orcas captured with Lolita in Penn Cove died seven months later in Texas. Another went to France and died in 1973. The two who went to Japan died in 1974. The one who went to England had the dubious honor of swimming with Prince Charles before being transferred to San Diego and dying in 1986. By 1987, every single southern resident Griffin and Goldsberry had captured in Puget Sound was dead—except Lolita.
She arrived at the Miami Seaquarium on September 24, 1970, where she has performed shows—as many as four times per day—for decades. This month marks her 45th anniversary.
It's also Lolita's first anniversary at the marine park since the federal government's decision to include her on the Endangered Species List. Southern resident killer whales have been on the Endangered Species List since November 18, 2005, but the regulatory language of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the time specifically said it "does not include killer whales from J, K, or L pod placed in captivity prior to listing."
After years of legal wrangling by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other groups, NOAA Fisheries reversed itself earlier this year and, in February, announced that they were removing the exemption that applied to Lolita. However, NOAA added, "While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of the population she came from, the decision does not impact her residence at the Miami Seaquarium."
Having gotten what they wanted from NOAA, animal-rights advocates have now turned their attention to Miami Seaquarium. A lawsuit filed in US District Court on July 20, 2015, alleges the marine park is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs are PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Orca Network, and Howard Garrett. The defendants are Miami Seaquarium and parent company Festival Fun Parks LLC.
Miami Seaquarium has said over and over that Lolita is not going anywhere. In a statement, general manager Andrew Hertz told The Stranger that Lolita is "healthy and thriving," and that she is "an ambassador for her species." He added that releasing her back into Puget Sound would "be reckless and cruel" and would "jeopardize her health and safety in order to appease a fringe group."
But multiple prominent orca biologists don't agree with those assertions. And as public outcry over the captivity of orcas at marine parks intensifies, and as our scientific understanding of these sensitive creatures grows, the justification for confining them for public amusement has become more and more difficult. "The public has clearly turned its back on orca captivity, particularly since the documentary Blackfish, which exposed the lives of these animals and everything they're deprived of," said Jared Goodman, director of animal law for PETA.
"This is Lolita's shot at freedom," he added. "We believe that she is clearly being held in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and we think that this is her best shot at being transferred to a coastal sanctuary, where she can live out her days in as natural a setting as possible."
When Lolita arrived at the Miami Seaquarium on September 24, 1970, the 38-acre oceanarium already had a killer whale. His name was Hugo. Griffin and Goldsberry had captured him in 1968 near Tacoma. He was the first captive killer whale on the East Coast.
Like Lolita, Hugo was a southern resident. In the wild, the older a southern resident female gets and the more babies she has, the more powerful she is. Males are all mama's boys; they stay by their mother's side their entire lives. Females typically stay by mom's side as well, but they have their own families to look after, especially after mom dies. Adult males "become socially adrift upon their mother's death," says marine mammal biologist Ken Balcomb, and typically die unless they find an older dominant female who can act as a matriarchal surrogate. Balcomb has taken the annual census of southern residents since 1976, and he is the foremost authority on their behaviors in the wild. He is also a vocal advocate for Lolita's release. (Garrett and Balcomb are half brothers.)
When Lolita arrived at the Miami Seaquarium, she was "so traumatized" that she did "not swim or eat for days," according to Pat Sykes, who was a Miami Seaquarium trainer from 1970 to 1973. "She did not care for frozen meals." But three months later, Sykes was already riding on Lolita's back. (After her employment at Miami Seaquarium, Sykes became an advocate for Lolita's release. She died earlier this year; all of the quotes attributed to her come from a written statement she once sent to Howard Garrett, which I obtained.)
According to newspaper stories in the early 1970s, Lolita and Hugo performed four times a day. Trainers stood on their stomachs as they swam upside down, put their heads in the killer whales' mouths, and taught them to jump in unison to touch their noses to rubber balls suspended over the tank.
For the first year, Lolita and Hugo lived in separate tanks several hundred feet apart, but they talked constantly—after all, southern residents belong to the same acoustic clan. (Dialects may be one way killer whales in the wild decide who to breed with.) "At night when the park was closed, you could hear the orcas communicating with one another," said Sykes.
It was a PR decision to change Tokitae's name to Lolita, Sykes said. In her words: "The press machine that took care of Seaquarium, Jane Wrigley, referred to Toki as a 'Screaming Lolita,' and that became her name."
Garrett believes giving Tokitae the new name of Lolita "was to create this myth of her being the underage girlfriend of Hugo."
Sure enough, news reports at the time took it as a given that any sexual relationship between Lolita and Hugo would be up to Hugo. (From what we now know of southern resident social structure, it is clear that Lolita had the upper hand.) But it's hard to find stories even suggesting there were problems under the explosion of matrimonial hoopla Miami Seaquarium was trying to sell its audiences. On June 2, 1971, the marine park staged a wedding for them. A headline in the Miami News: "Big Splash to Mark Mammoth Wedding."
Lolita and Hugo had been kept apart for almost a year, but now Lolita would be lifted into the air with a 30-ton crane and lowered into the same tank Hugo occupied. The sudden appearance of a dominant female in his tank coincides with a change in Hugo's behavior. "Lolita arrived and shortly Hugo became sullen and withdrawn," reads a newspaper report published in the Beaver County Times on July 26, 1971. "Nearly a dozen times, in training and before audiences... Hugo has made what appeared to be direct efforts to harm the human performers."
Sykes recalled that Hugo became agitated, swimming around the tank "vigorously," so vigorously that Sykes said something. "I told my higher-ups that Hugo was banging into the bubble window pretty hard, but they assured me the Plexiglas was strong enough," Sykes said.
Hugo eventually swam so hard into the bubble window in his tank that he broke it, creating a several-inches-wide hole, severing his rostrum—his nose—and nearly drowning himself in the process, Sykes said. The water flowing out of the tank, over his blowhole, could have drowned him.
A year and a half after Lolita and Hugo's "wedding," in October of 1972, according to the Boca Raton News, the marine park hired "a 34-year-old psychic astrologer and numerologist" who "dressed in a jeweled turban and a Hindu cloak" and "descended a ladder to the edge of the tank" to "tune in to Lolita's psychic vibrations to find out if she was expecting." The psychic astrologer's prediction was that Lolita and Hugo would have a baby "conceived five years from the date that Hugo was brought to the Seaquarium." In spite of the prediction, and in spite of Lolita and Hugo having sex on multiple occasions (prompting the park to cancel several days' worth of shows in 1977, according to the Palm Beach Post), Lolita never produced viable offspring.
Behind the scenes, there may have been more going on than what made it into the papers. According to the book Killers of the Sea by Edward R. Ricciuti, Lolita displayed some aggressive behaviors, too, "according to her trainer at the time, Manny Velasco. Both killers would lunge at him, mouths open, as he worked with them from the training platform." (Velasco has since died, and an attempt to reach his widow was not successful.)
According to a December 1975 story in the Miami News, Hugo grabbed a new trainer named Bob Pulaski "by the wetsuit and shook him. Pulaski tried to get out of the wetsuit, which further excited the playful whale, which was joined by its companion. The two whales [Hugo and Lolita] eventually tore the wetsuit from the trainer."
In January of 1980, Hugo's trainers began noticing more "behavioral" issues, according to a necropsy that would be written four months later. He was "thrashing about" yet also "sluggish." That behavior continued for months until March 4, 1980, when Hugo died "after repeatedly smashing his head into the walls of the tank in what is described as an act of suicide," according to the Orca Project, an advocacy group. The necropsy, which was signed by Dr. White (who has also since died), says Hugo died of a cerebral aneurysm. Miami Seaquarium declined to answer The Stranger's questions about Hugo. At the time of his death, they made only vague statements to the press. "We found him dead one morning," is how Miami Seaquarium trainer Eric Eimstad explained it to the Palm Beach Post in 1981.
The Miami Seaquarium is one of the places where Flipper was filmed, and one of the dolphins that played Flipper, Kathy, likewise "died of suicide," her trainer Ric O'Barry later told PBS. He believes Kathy was so starved for stimulation in her tank that she intentionally drowned herself. O'Barry was so traumatized by her death that he became an advocate against captivity of all dolphins, including orcas.
"When you capture a creature like Lolita and put her in this concrete box, you take away the two most important aspects of her life: her family and the world of sound," O'Barry says in the 2003 documentary Lolita: Slave to Entertainment. "They use their sonar for capturing fish, chasing fish, navigating, finding one another. In captivity, in isolation, in a concrete box, they don't use their sonar, there's no need for it. So this becomes a form of sensory deprivation."
In the wild, southern residents consume "about 28 to 34 adult salmon daily," according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Chinook salmon southern residents hunt are usually found about 50 to 60 meters below the surface of the water, but "it's likely the salmon dive deeper and then killer whales have to chase them," Marla Holt, a bioacoustician at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told me. Holt said orcas may swim to depths of 200 meters, even 300 meters, while hunting for fish.
Lolita's tank is 12 feet deep around the perimeter and 20 feet deep at its deepest—or 6.09 meters. Lolita herself is 20 feet long, meaning she has no room to dive. The length and width of her oblong tank are 80 feet by 60 feet, but Lolita does not have free range within that space because there is an island in the center, which doubles as a stage. "The tank therefore has an unobstructed space of only 80 feet by 35 feet," the plaintiffs in the July 2015 lawsuit say, describing the concrete island as "approximately 45 feet long by 5 feet wide." Miami Seaquarium disputes the plaintiffs' assessment of the size of the island.
It has been widely reported that Lolita lives in the smallest orca tank in the United States.
David Neiwert, the Of Orcas and Men author, visited Lolita in January of 2013 and said at a book signing a few weeks ago, "It's really shocking how tiny and crappy her tank is. The Miami Seaquarium is a dump. It's really shocking."
A 2011 lawsuit against the USDA alleged the size of Lolita's tank violated the Animal Welfare Act, but that lawsuit was dismissed. Miami Seaquarium told The Stranger: "Lolita's habitat has been certified by the USDA as 'meets the intent and letter of the law with regard to space requirements for orcas.'"
In 1996, Dateline NBC did a segment on Lolita and the Miami Seaquarium. The network interviewed Ken Balcomb, who in addition to being the foremost authority on southern residents in the wild is the founder and executive director of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census of southern residents. (According to the census completed July 1, 2015, there are 81 southern residents alive—about the same number as in 1970.)
Balcomb told the Dateline NBC reporter who interviewed him about Lolita in 1996 that he wanted to "retire her from show business, bring her to a place where she'll be taken care of, and facilitate, if she wants, her return to her family."
When asked by Dateline NBC what we could learn about southern residents from Lolita that we don't already know, Balcomb said: "We're going to be able to look into the memory and mind of a whale like we've never had an opportunity before."
He added that the training she's gotten in captivity could be an asset. "Because she is attuned to people right now, we have an opportunity to actually continue the training in a scientific vein, where she will carry instruments for us, bring them back, allow us to medically sample her at intervals..."
Dateline NBC also interviewed Dr. Greg Bossart, Miami Seaquarium's consulting veterinarian, who said, "To consider her for release is unethical, irresponsible, and inhumane." He also told Dateline NBC that Lolita is "deathly afraid of living fish," which he concluded based on one experience when a live fish was put in Lolita's tank. He did not elaborate on how he knows what Lolita's fears are, and he did not return an e-mail from The Stranger. But the main reason Dr. Bossart said he doesn't believe Lolita should be freed is that no one has ever proved to him that killer whales can be weaned of human interaction.
Howard Garrett says that is not a problem. The Orca Network has a detailed plan—called the Lolita Retirement Project—for reintroducing Lolita to her native waters, and there is a whole community of people willing to maintain contact with Lolita if she chooses to remain in a sea pen, interacting with humans, for the rest of her life.
That is not what Garrett thinks would happen. After years of proposing a sanctuary for Lolita in a cove off San Juan Island, Garrett says he has secured an even better option: the protected waters of Eastsound on Orcas Island. "I think that immersion in her home waters will be therapeutic. In fact, that's in the veterinary literature," he says. "We don't know what [drugs] she may be getting now, but I think it's safe to say what she's getting now is to treat the stresses of captivity, which will be alleviated as soon as she gets into her native waters." (Miami Seaquarium declined to comment on whether Lolita is on any drugs.)
Garrett adds, "She has a memory, she traveled with her family for probably at least three years—three to five years—and orcas are very precocious at birth and are catching fish within their first year, and are using their calls within the first year, within the first month, in fact. So I think that's all firmly retained in her memory. But the most important aspects of their lives are their family, so I really believe that she will remember them."
When Dateline NBC played her a recording of L-pod calls in 1996, she extended herself out of the water toward the recording several times, as if intrigued.
"If she appears unwilling or unable to venture outside her pen, she will be provided with sustenance, medical care, training regimens, and human companionship indefinitely," the Orca Network's website states.
Miami Seaquarium's statement to The Stranger referred ominously to "the polluted waters of Puget Sound," but Garrett points out that the water off Orcas Island is different than the waters of Puget Sound. "The waters where she'll be are far from any kind of urban or suburban development, very little traffic of any kind around, so virtually no polluted runoff... it'll be as good as the water gets in the Salish Sea."
The National Marine Fisheries Service's "Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales" from 2008 says that previous attempts to release orcas back into natural waters have been "largely unsuccessful." This is undoubtedly a reference to Keiko, star of Free Willy, because he is the only high-profile example of a captive orca being released back into the wild. But Keiko had originally been captured in Iceland, and no one knew who his family was. That isn't the case with Lolita.
Moreover, Keiko lived for nearly two years in a sea pen at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, followed by another five years in his native Icelandic waters—which really doesn't sound all that unsuccessful either (considering the alternative). In Garrett's opinion, "The protocols for Keiko were very mixed, very inconsistent, in terms of how personnel treated him, how they related to him." Keiko's oversight was provided by a complicated coalition of parties that kept changing until "basically it was the Humane Society who took it over, and they played a very conservative protocol, which was to turn your back on him and force him to be a wild whale," Garrett says. Keiko did not form any bonds with wild killer whales, even though he interacted with a few. Then he would return to his sea pen, and personnel "would hide in the hold of the boat," Garrett says. "So when he came back from not being accepted by the orcas, he would be rejected by the humans."
Eventually, Keiko took a six-week swim to Norway, where he interacted with a few human beings, including children he let ride on his back, and died abruptly of pneumonia in 2003.
Garrett points to the profound social bonds of southern residents to explain why he doesn't believe Lolita will have the same problems as Keiko. The scientific literature is clear: There is no social dispersal among southern residents. Families stay together for life. Southern residents appear to be more affectionate, and certainly more communal with their affection, than humans. A behavior believed to be unique to southern residents—but "very seldom witnessed," Garrett says—is called a "greeting ceremony." It happens when pods that have been apart from each other for a period of time reunite.
Garrett witnessed a greeting ceremony in the 1980s. "The pods meet and line up facing each other so it's a big triangle—J, K, and L pods—a couple hundred yards in between them, a really big triangle, with whales defining the three sides," he said. "For a short time, less than a minute, they hold that formation at the surface, so there's all these dorsal fins holding still in the water, oriented the same way, side by side. And then that formation dissolves and the next thing you see are these groups that pop up, not just in the middle but all around the area, that are made up of members of all three pods, but each group is not the total of them, it's just maybe 15 or 20, so they've been doing some kind of group grope underneath the water. But eventually they all have to come up for air. So there's a lot of heavy breathing going on, a lot of rapid respiration, and then those groupings dissolve and rearrange into other groupings. Each one takes off and meets up with others, and then they pop up after three to five minutes underneath and take some deep breaths and pop off to form new groups, and that can happen all day, or for days. It's kind of like a barn dance when neighbors come from all around and dance with each other. And it's very acoustic, very loud, a lot of calls from all directions, a lot of horseplay, a lot of sex play going on, it seems like a very happy time for them."
If that's what they do when they've been away from each other for weeks or months, it's hard not to wonder what a reunion after 45 years would look like.
In 2010, the Seattle Times published an article with the headline "Lolita still thrives at Miami Seaquarium."
The evidence of her "thriving" was that she hadn't died yet and Miami Seaquarium employees told the reporter she was healthy. The reporter, Robert Samuels, wrote, "Lolita swims still, in this same tank, never giving a clue that she'd want anything else." It's a strangely credulous piece of journalism. On its website, the Seattle Times identifies the author as "Seattle Times staff" as well as "Robert Samuels," but the article was originally published by the Miami Herald.
Dr. Ingrid Visser, a marine mammal biologist from New Zealand who has studied orcas extensively and is cited widely in the scientific literature, said she does not agree that Lolita is thriving. "In my professional opinion, as someone who has spent 20 years researching orca and who has observed orca in all captive facilities in North America, Europe, Japan, Netherlands, and Argentina, Tokitae/Lolita is far from thriving and is under duress," Dr. Visser said by e-mail.
Dr. Visser, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Orca Research Trust, visited Miami Seaquarium and observed Lolita over two days in 2012 and two days in 2015. She says she observed "various examples of abnormal behaviors that are uncommon or not observed in the wild," including "lying for atypical amounts of time at the surface" and also lying at the bottom of her tank: "There are no published records of orca lying on the seafloor, to my knowledge."
Dr. Visser also observed that both of "the front two teeth (one on each mandible) show some sort of 'issue'—I asked the trainers about this and they were very evasive and gave a variety of answers to me and my colleague, which included the ridiculous 'I drink coffee and my teeth get stained,' as well as 'It is the oily salmon we feed her that causes that.'" Dr. Visser wrote in an e-mail, "If the salmon was causing the discolouration of the teeth, then why do we only see the issue on the front two teeth and why don't wild orca who eat salmon have the same issues?
"After we asked these questions, as soon as the trainers saw me trying to take photos with the long lens, rather than wait until the stadium was emptied before continuing to feed her, they attempted to block my view of her teeth and prevent me from photographing her," Dr. Visser wrote, and attached to her e-mail a photograph of two Seaquarium staff members blocking her view of Lolita's mouth.
"I have not been able to conduct any close-up inspections of her, so I can't comment if she is healthy or not," Dr. Visser added, "but I can state that they won't allow us to bring in a truly independent veterinarian who could make that assessment."
Miami Seaquarium declined to respond to questions from The Stranger about Dr. Visser's statements.
Until June of this year, Lolita was still swimming with trainers during performances, even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had ruled in 2010 that it was dangerous for trainers to swim with killer whales. After the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, OSHA inspected SeaWorld of Florida and fined the park $75,000 for safety infractions, including the lack of a physical barrier between trainers and orcas.
In December of 2013, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sent a letter to OSHA saying similar interactions between trainers and Lolita were still taking place at Miami Seaquarium. "Having seen OSHA's response to the SeaWorld tragedy and its aggressive enforcement of worker safety laws at SeaWorld, there was no reason that Seaquarium should be able to get away with endangering its own workers," Matthew Liebman, senior attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), told me. "So we decided to contact OSHA and alert them to the fact that this same conduct that they had cited SeaWorld for was also taking place at Seaquarium."
In July of 2014, OSHA cited Miami Seaquarium, fining the park $7,000. In June of 2015, Seaquarium announced that trainers would no longer be performing in the water with Lolita.
According to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) lawsuit filed by PETA, ALDF, and the Orca Network, Lolita is "a highly intelligent, social, and complex individual" confined to "a small, shallow, and barren concrete tank, without adequate protection from the sun, and without a single orca companion." These conditions deprive her of the ability to "swim any meaningful distance, dive, forage, or carry out virtually any natural behaviors." In the wild, killer whales swim up to 100 miles a day. (Miami Seaquarium points out that the USDA said, "Shade and protection from weather is provided by the stadium seating around Lolita's pool.")
The lawsuit alleges the conditions of Lolita's captivity at Miami Seaquarium "harm" and "harass" her in violation of the ESA's "take" prohibition. The act defines "take" as "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct." Citing the ESA and federal regulations, the plaintiffs say: "The term 'harm' includes an act which 'kills or injures' an endangered or threatened animal... The term 'harass' includes an 'intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury [to an endangered animal] by annoying [her] to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.'"
There are exemptions for noncommercial uses of such species, but Lolita is clearly used for commercial uses, PETA says.
"She is being held purely for entertainment purposes," says Jared Goodman, the PETA attorney. "She is not making any contributions to science or to enhance the propagation of the species in the wild. In fact, Lolita's captivity and her capture were responsible in part for her population being endangered."
If the lawsuit prevails and a judge decides Lolita's captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, the law states she "shall be subject to forfeiture to the United States."
According to video footage of a show at Miami Seaquarium recorded on July 4, 2015, and obtained by The Stranger, park guests are told: "Lolita has been a part of the Miami Seaquarium family for over 45 years, and the Pacific white-sided dolphins joined her pod about 30 years ago. A pod is a group of whales and dolphins that spend a majority of their time together. Lolita's pod consists of her Pacific white-sided dolphin companions that are nearly 1/40th of her size. Killer whales are actually the largest member of the dolphin family..."
That completely misrepresents what a pod is. Southern resident pods are rigid family structures ordered around matriarchs; they're not just random groups of animals. Miami Seaquarium declined to respond to a question from The Stranger about this.
Miami Seaquarium did tell The Stranger, "There is no scientific evidence that the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved from her home at Miami Seaquarium to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest." The phrase "post-reproductive" almost implies that Lolita would not be of much value to her species in the wild, but the scientific literature says older females play a crucial role in southern resident dynamics. For example, orcas are the only mammals other than humans whose females live long past menopause, and postmenopausal orcas lead the way on hunting and continue to have a sexual function within the clan, teaching the young males sex to train them for success when it comes time to reproduce, and acting as matriarchal surrogates for adrift adult males.
According to the video obtained by The Stranger, Miami Seaquarium also tells its audiences, "A male killer whale has a life expectancy of about 30 years, whereas a female like Lolita is estimated to live into their 50s." Audiences are not told that killer whales in captivity have shorter life spans than killer whales in the wild. Seaquarium audiences are likewise not told that Lolita's presumed mother, L25, aka Ocean Sun, is still alive, at an estimated 85 years old. Nor are they told about J2, aka Granny, being 104.
"Lolita is the oldest killer whale in a human-care facility," her trainers tell the audience. "And at 50 years old, that is a true testament to each of her trainers' hard work and dedication." There is something chilling about hearing that "a female like Lolita is estimated to live into their 50s" and then hearing that Lolita is 50. They say her age more than once, almost as if to prepare the audience for the fact that she may die any day.
Another line in the show is "At almost 50 years old, we are happy to say that she is happy, healthy, and going strong!" This is followed by Lolita leaping into the air, landing on her back, splashing the audience, and being rewarded with food.
Shortly after this article was published, Orca Network said that they had obtained the July 2015 video as well, and uploaded it to YouTube.
The 45th anniversary of Lolita's capture was on August 8, 2015. The Orca Network organized a commemoration at Penn Cove, and I drove to Coupeville to witness it. I took the long way, Seattle to Mount Vernon and then west to Whidbey Island by way of Deception Pass, the gateway to the ocean that Lolita and her mom were swimming toward when Griffin and Goldsberry attacked.
Deception Pass is also the waterway through which Griffin towed Namu in 1965. That was a 400-mile journey from British Columbia to Seattle, with Namu in a sea pen pulled by tugboat. Three other orcas—believed to be a female and two calves—followed outside his pen, and there was "tremendous squealing" between the four of them, according to the diaries of Gil Hewlett, a Canadian biologist on loan from the Vancouver Aquarium who helped with the journey. Namu was thrashing around, leaping into the air, crashing against the sides of his pen, and his squealing was "terrifying," Hewlett wrote, "almost like a throttled cat."
Namu died 11 months later on the Seattle waterfront.
Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, is the second-oldest town in Washington State. It was founded in 1852, a year after Moby-Dick was published. It looks like a strip of Holland along the water's edge. A pier extends out to a wharf, where kiosks present information about the Penn Cove roundup in 1970, as well as the events of 1971, when yet another group of southern residents were rounded up. Garrett says that, to his knowledge, southern residents have never been back.
Inside the Coupeville Recreation Center, a woman was painting an orca onto another woman's chest. Ephemera scattered throughout the room included news clippings ("Lolita's Capture Stirs Anger"), silent-auction items (to support the legal fight), and a framed political cartoon from 1996 depicting Lolita in a claw-foot bathtub with "Miami Seaquarium" on its side. An oversized greeting card signed by hand and hanging on the wall read: "Best Wishes for Lolita on this Mother's Day. May you see your family soon. Yours Truly, Sir Elton John, May 9th, 1999."
A 7-year-old boy with an orca painted on his cheek ran up to John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer whose experiences over 14 years led him to become a whistle-blower against the corporation and who appears in the documentary Blackfish. Hargrove was wearing a necktie and vest, just like he wore on The Daily Show in March of this year.
"What do the orcas feel like?" the boy asked.
Hargrove answered, "Like a cross between a wet Oscar Mayer wiener and a wet inner tube."
The boy smiled and ran off.
Hargrove was the star of the commemoration, judging from how eager people were to talk to him and how many people lined up for him to sign copies of his book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, written with the journalist Howard Chua-Eoan.
"Even though I've never worked with Lolita personally, I've worked with 20 different orcas," Hargrove said. "I've swum with 17. I know killer-whale behavior. I know for these animals in particular, it's the height of animal cruelty to have them in solitary. Especially if you just look at the size of her pool and the quality of her environment, and it's just disgusting. Are we in 1970 or 2015?"
In Beneath the Surface, Hargrove tells the story of being a wide-eyed kid whose only dream in life was to be a killer-whale trainer at SeaWorld and then, two decades after achieving his dream, coming to the conclusion that he was "part of a rapacious corporate scheme that exploited both the orcas and their human trainers."
The book is full of harrowing eyewitness allegations about the treatment of killer whales in captivity, including food deprivation ("The practice has been kept secret" because "it would not be good for business to say that the stars of the show were not given food in order to make them perform"), chronic stress ("Many were medicated for ulcers"), artificial insemination ("We used a small lubricated plastic tube—no thicker than a ballpoint pen but flexible—to figure out the pathways of her vagina"), incest (one female "was bred with her uncle... twice"), forcible separation of mothers and calves (one female "had been taken from her mother, then she had her first calf taken from her, and then she herself was removed from the side of her second calf"), and forcible impregnation of youths ("Females that in the wild would be too young to breed").
Beneath the Surface also alleges that orcas suffer from "quiet desperation and intense boredom." "Killer whales, longing for stimulation, have learned to regurgitate food just to keep themselves busy," Hargrove writes. "Almost all the whales in SeaWorld" obsessively grind their teeth against the "ledges, floors, and stages" of their pools, and some "peel the paint off the pool's inner walls with their teeth... trying to occupy themselves."
SeaWorld says Hargrove's statements are "purposefully misleading or demonstrably false."
SeaWorld also says it does not separate mothers and calves. Hargrove says that's a blatant lie; he can't believe that statement is still up on their website. SeaWorld defines calves as offspring that are still nursing, but there is no such distinction in the wild. Southern resident calves stay with their mothers their entire lives. At SeaWorld, Hargrove says, he helped carry out mother and calf separations under orders from management. "I remember testifying to the California State Assembly we've taken at least 19 to 20," he said.
Right as Hargrove told me that, there was a disruption at the front of the room. Howard Garrett was speaking into a microphone.
"I don't want to break up the festivities," Garrett announced, "but I've just been advised we have some whales in Penn Cove."
A ripple of excitement went through the room, and soon everyone was on their feet.
We couldn't see any whales when we got down to the wharf, but the water was clear and beautiful.
Hargrove started talking about being a killer-whale trainer. He likened the experience to being in a cult. "The thought was that we were the only ones in the world who knew how to deal with killer whales, and the researchers had phony research and were crazy people... Then I met them, and I thought—wait, these people aren't crazy. They know what they're talking about, and we're the crazy ones! We're isolated. It's cultlike. We didn't want outside opinion."
"Oh, there!" someone cried out, seeing a dorsal fin.
"Woo!" someone else said.
In the distance were several dorsal fins traveling in the same direction. They were transients. As we watched them, Hargrove said, "I used to joke at work that what we were doing was the equivalent of alien abduction. We take them from their homes, probe them, prod them, take their fluids, test them... At least with alien abductions, they give those people back!"
Hargrove said the confidentiality agreement he signed when SeaWorld hired him was "written on Anheuser-Busch letterhead. You could tell it was written for beer and trade secrets—there was nothing about orcas." Anheuser-Busch owned SeaWorld from 1989 to 2009. "Since I've spoken out, they've since changed the confidentiality agreement. Mine was a two-pager. It's about that thick now," he said, holding his fingers a couple inches apart. "They say it's crazy what they sign now."
A pair of glossy orcas launched out of the water in the distance—an adult and a calf, side by side.
"Yeah!" an 11-year-old on the dock called out.
"Awesome," Hargrove said.
They were "porpoising"—leaping partially out of the water during rapid swimming. Another pair of orcas was porpoising in front of them, simultaneously. There appeared to be six or eight of them. Their white undersides crashed gorgeously through the white foam they were making.
I asked Hargrove when he first saw killer whales in the wild. "I saw them in the wild only for the first time two weeks ago on San Juan Island," he said.
It was hard to believe that someone who spent so many years swimming with killer whales had never seen them in the wild. I asked how he would compare the size of Penn Cove to the largest tank in captivity, and he said, "It's not even comparable. Dude, we would house these whales in an eight-feet-deep pool—and it's called the 'med pool'—for multiple hours a day. Every single day, every single show, a whale was stuck in the med pool... It's fucked up what we're doing to these whales."
An 8-year-old girl named London Fletcher was standing next to us holding a plush orca. I asked her what she thought of Lolita, and she said, matter-of-factly, "I think it's wrong for her to be in captivity. Even if she can't be released, she needs to be in a sea pen." I asked how many killer whales she'd seen in the wild, and she said, "I've seen like 15. Most of them on San Juan Island." She said she'd never been to a marine park.
Her father, Joel Fletcher, said, "She wants to be a marine biologist and she wants to decode the language."
Later, in the rec center, Hargrove equated being within the captivity industry as being in a bubble, and said, referring to the central event depicted in Blackfish, "Unfortunately, my friend of nine years had to be dismembered to pierce the bubble." Hargrove talked about his regret at telling audiences that killer whales were thriving in spite of the contradictory evidence he saw every day: "I can tell you from my own personal experience, these whales are not thriving in captivity. I would not be here if they were thriving in captivity. It doesn't matter the size of the facility."
In his opinion, "What's happening is pure exploitation and greed designed as conservation and education."
With regard to Lolita, he said, "Let's get her out of there. We can do it with Howard Garrett and everybody behind this. Let's give her that shot. We're in a race against time with her. We are."
According to the oral traditions of Native tribes on the Salish Sea, orcas are the ancestors of human beings. The Kwakwaka'wakw believed humans were killer whales who'd come ashore and forgot to go back, and that later a Kwakwaka'wakw princess married an orca by walking into his mouth, and together they ruled the underworld. The S'Klallam legend adds the detail that the marriage was the result of an agreement between the girl's father and the orca king, who promised ever-abundant fish in exchange.
"What's noteworthy about these legends," writes Of Orcas and Men author David Neiwert—who also attended the commemoration in Coupeville—"is the full personage that killer whales are accorded. They transform into men when they come to land, return to their whale form when they go in water, and emerge back in their own villages in human form again."
Rosie Cayou, a Samish Indian Nation elder, said that her father witnessed the Penn Cove captures in 1970 and was never the same afterward. She told the crowd, "My dad stood on a beach at the head of Penn Cove and talked to his family. His family was J, K, and L pods. My dad was raised on Orcas Island. The whales were his playmates. So when he watched them being kidnapped, it tore something in his heart that was not reparable."
Cayou had prepared a salmon ceremony to take place out on the wharf. She and Bill Bailey, another Samish Nation elder, created two offerings for the spirit of the orcas: The offerings consisted of fresh salmon, seaweed, and evergreen leaves, and they were each stacked on a large chunk of cedar. Howard Garrett helped Cayou and Bailey carry them down to the wharf. A crowd of more than 50 people followed.
"You'll see that there are two offerings here," Cayou said once everyone was out on the wharf. "Howard, you want to explain the offerings?"
"The two offerings are for the residents and the transients," Garrett said. "Each we give the blessings of the salmon."
"And one of the reasons for doing this is to feed the spirit of the orcas," Cayou said, "to let them know we do not support the ones who have Tokitae."
Cayou and Bailey first performed a traditional song, with Bailey playing the drum. Both sang. Cayou said the song was "in honor of Tokitae—Lolita," as well as in honor of "Granny, who's still out there. She's seen many go ahead of her."
In the stillness after the song, while water lapped gently at the dock, Bailey walked around the moorings, looking for the best place to put the offerings into the water, while Cayou scanned the crowd, making eye contact with everyone, looking for volunteers. Her intense gaze met mine and she said, to my surprise, "You in the hat." I stepped forward. The other volunteer she selected was Joel Fletcher, London's dad. Fletcher was wearing a necklace and a watch, which Cayou asked him to take off. I took off my hat.
She instructed us to reach into a black plastic trash bag full of slimy, sandy seaweed and lift a handful into the air. "Lift it up like an offering to the spirits," she instructed. She grabbed a handful to show us, raising it up to the horizon line and holding it a moment before placing it in the water. Fletcher and I did as instructed until the bag was empty.
"In the old days, the Indians would have used a cedar woven basket, but we do what we can," she said, and the crowd laughed. There was a lot of seaweed, a variety of shapes and textures. One behavior of southern residents observed in the wild is rubbing their bodies in kelp, seemingly for the tactile pleasure of it.
As we gave the seaweed offerings, I could hear the click of cell-phone cameras and the friendly hum of a Kenmore Air seaplane circling us. The seaplane was painted to look like an orca, part of a program started by two Kenmore Air pilots called Wild Orca. An informational brochure about southern residents written by Ken Balcomb is provided to passengers on Kenmore Air flights.
"Offerings don't go without peace offerings as well," Cayou explained as we finished placing the seaweed in the water.
Then she instructed Bailey and Garrett to place the two salmon offerings in the water.
"So we can stop the cameras for a while," Cayou said to the crowd. "Can we hold the cameras for a while?"
Garrett and Bailey gave their offerings, placing the salmon in the water first, then the seaweed the salmon had been sitting on, then the western red cedar leaves the seaweed had been sitting on. Right as I was wondering how a salmon offering would be of interest to transients, Cayou said, "Whatever feeds on that salmon, the spirit of the orca is going to feed through it. Maybe it's a crab."
"Maybe it's a seal," a man called out, referencing a seal seen earlier, and everyone laughed.
"This is how all of our families looked at life," Cayou said when they were done. "Thank you all for being here. This is a very special event."
"I, too, thank you as well," said Garrett. "This is our offering to residents and transients and our gift to Tokitae."
Garrett was wearing cargo pants and a "Free Lolita" T-shirt and a dress shirt over it. He told me, "I've got a T-shirt I should bring out that says '28 years is long enough,' and now it's been 45." He looked subdued, his face somber.
Orca Network cofounder Susan Berta, who is married to Garrett, told me Blackfish has ushered in "a groundswell of public support like we've never had in the past" and that anti-captivity activism is "just exploding," but she also said, "We've gone through a lot of ups and downs."
The mayor of Langley, Fred McCarthy, was present on the wharf, and Garrett introduced him. McCarthy read aloud a letter he'd just written to the mayor of Miami Beach, encouraging him to press for Lolita's release. The mayor of Miami Beach is said to be sympathetic to the cause, although it was hard to imagine what he might be able to accomplish for Lolita. And it's hard to take any public figure at their word. When I asked Garrett about the greeting card from Elton John, for example, he said that a week after they received it, "We called back to see if he wanted to do any more, and his manager completely reneged and said, 'We no longer want to play any part of this.' Obviously, someone had gotten through to them. That's when SeaWorld was owned by Anheuser-Busch, and they're a major sponsor of show business, so someone must have called and said, 'Don't say things like that.'"
While the mayor of Langley was talking, it started to rain gently. Soon a rainbow extended beyond the roof of the rec center.
I looked at Garrett, bobbing lightly on the dock, and tried to imagine the exhaustion of 20 years of fighting for Lolita's release—20 years of legal battles, public-relations battles, even moving to Miami in 1997 for two years, trying to influence local leaders.
I looked at Rosie Cayou and thought about what it must have been like for her dad to witness the captures and feel powerless.
I looked at Hargrove, the former SeaWorld trainer. He was crying.
A week later, I asked Garrett if he would agree that there has been some scientific good to come out of captivity. "I'd say that. And relative to before captivity, it's improved most people's attitudes who thought orcas were vicious killers who should be exterminated," he said.
"Now let's evolve a little more and celebrate their presence and their natural expressions. We can learn from them, not just about them. Because they've been practicing how to live on the planet as very self-conscious, culture-building mammals—which is the best we can say about ourselves—for many millions of years before humans."