Lolita: Her Life Story

Lolita has been in captivity for 40 years now.  I felt that I should post this:

I do not own any of the following writing:


* Lolita was born around 1965, just about when the fever to catch orcas for public display was catching on. At the time no one had systematically observed Washington’s resident orcas, or even knew they were resident, so to piece her story together we will have to use our present knowledge and some informed speculation.*After some hours feeling the pangs of the 400 pound calf nudging her way out of the womb, Lolita’s mom probably corkscrewed for a few seconds to thrust Lolita out into the cool water. After a few slaps the little baby orca would have quickly learned to breathe effectively and safely. Like all newborn orcas, after 17 months gestation she was well-developed at birth and could swim strongly enough to keep up, as long as she stayed tucked in tight to her mother’s flank. Like all baby orcas, her brain was about 4500 cc’s in size at birth, about three times the size of an adult human’s brain, so within the first few months she was probably learning and remembering her pod’s calls and how they scanned their undersea world with high-pitched clicks, and even how to catch fish. She stayed in her mom’s slipstream for the first several months of her life while her pod travelled an average of 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours. Lolita often nudged her mom’s belly to nurse, prompting her to extrude her mammary teats and squirt milk into Lolita’s curled tongue.By around the end of her first year she began to catch her own fish, but she continued to nuzzle in for the occasional slurp of milk until she was about three years old. Lolita gradually began exploring further away from her mother to play with other young whales or to practice chasing fish, but she always returned to her mother’s side for most of each day, especially when the pod slowed their swimming and went into a resting pattern.

For the next few years Lolita grew. She learned the ways of her family. She learned how to help find and corral fish, often taking turns driving food toward one another. She learned the routes to find the best fish and the calmest water depending on tides and wind. Still a juvenile, she was a few years from sexual maturity, though females in her family did not begin mating and conceiving until around 14 years old. She became a full member of her family, and her ten-pound brain, the size of a basketball, took it all in and kept it in her vivid memory.

Then came the tragedies, and Lolita’s capture.


Five whales, including four baby whales, drowned during this captureLolita was about two years old when the captures began taking her family members. In early 1966 a Southern Resident female was harpooned from a helicopter while swimming with her small calf. The mom and calf were intended to be dragged in to join a teenaged male named Namu, a northern resident orca who had been caught in Canadian waters in 1965 and was the first orca to be put on display and to develop a relationship with a human. The adult female, dying of her wounds, opened her blowhole and dove, drowning herself. The calf was given the name Shamu and was taken as a companion for Namu, but she was traumatized by the capture and her mother’s violent death, and didn’t get along with the orca or Ted Griffin, the entrepreneur who owned Namu. So after a few months the little orphan orca was shipped to Sea World in San Diego to become the original Shamu. That calf died six years later, but by then many more young orcas had been caught and delivered to Sea World, where they were also named Shamu. The public was never told that each one was a replacement for a previous Shamu that had died young.Just over a year later the first large-scale capture took place. A pod was herded into a cove in Puget Sound with speed boats and bombs like M-80s, and surrounded with nets. Five young ones were taken away that time, and three drowned during the capture operation. A year later another family was trapped. This time two were removed. One of those, a three-year-old male, was named Hugo and sent to the Miami Seaquarium. The bombs and nets and ropes and yelling men became a recurring trauma and a tragedy that the whales had come to expect. Time after time family members were forced into slings and onto flatbed trucks, and were driven away. Lolita (first called Tokitae) was captured on August 8, 1970 in Penn Cove, Whidbey Island. She was one of seven young whales sold to marine parks around the world from this roundup of over 80 orcas conducted by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, partners in a capture operation known as Namu, Inc.Nets forced separations of mothers and babiesFive whales, including four baby whales, drowned during this capture. The four drowned calves had their bellies slit, were filled with rocks, and weighted with chains and anchors to keep their deaths from coming to the attention of the public. Three of the carcasses washed up on the shore of Whidbey Island on November 18, 1970. Six years later, Sea World settled in court, agreeing to never again capture orcas in Washington State, to avoid publicly taking the blame.Lolita was recorded to be about 14 feet long and 4-6 years old at capture, though witnesses say she was probably no more than 12 feet long and only 3-4 years old. She was sent to the Miami Seaquarium in Florida, where she arrived September 24, 1970 to be a playmate for the young male orca named Hugo who had been captured in Puget Sound in February, 1968. Hugo was from Lolita’s clan, the Southern Resident community, but no one knew that at the time. For the first several weeks Hugo was kept in the present manatee tank, about a hundred yards away from Tokitae, because the park managers assumed they would fight. They called constantly to each other with their siren-like calls across the park grounds. Over the next ten years Hugo banged his head against the walls of his tank on many occasions, once slicing the tip of his rostrum off when he broke the thick glass of the viewing window. Veterinarian Jesse White sewed Hugo’s severed rostrum back on.

Hugo was often aggressive or withdrawn, and finally died in 1980 of a brain aneurism from ramming the walls. He was about 15 when he died. The six other young whales exported from Lolita’s capture went to parks in Texas, Australia, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom. All died within a few years.

The whales tried and often succeeded in escaping the capture teams. They learned to recognize the engine sounds of the capture boats from miles away, causing the captors to continually change boats and engines. Decoy whales sometimes distracted the captors into “wild whale” chases while mothers with young offspring safely detoured away from the capture boats. But the captors increased the terror tactics, deploying aircraft and more and faster boats and tossing bombs as fast as they could light them with an acetylene torch. The captures of Southern resident orcas continued until 1973, although transient orcas were captured until 1976.

Many were captured using underwater bombs, speed boats and aircraftBy early 1970 at least 16 of Lolita’s extended family, the Southern Resident community, had been hauled away and many others killed during captures. On August 8, the entire clan was headed north in Admiralty Inlet. Someone on a spotter plane saw them and soon fast catcher boats, led by Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin, were upon the whales. Speedboats raced in circles, bombs exploded. The orcas were herded northeast, around the southern tip of Whidbey Island. Orcas can swim over 30 miles per hour, but the boats were faster.

The intended destination was Holmes Harbor, but the whales split into two groups, causing confusion among the captors and slowing them down. Seeing several young whales headed east among the closest group, the men chose to concentrate on them. Only later did the planes find the mothers and calves headed north, probably intending to escape through Deception Pass. The capture boats managed to get ahead of the fleeing orcas in time to force them into Penn Cove, then into the farthest reaches of the cove, within sight of the Capt. Whidbey Inn. Soon seiners arrived to string long nets around the whales, then a floating pen was set up inside the seine net for the final separation of babies and juveniles from their mothers.

A few hours later the other group of whales that had escaped the initial capture came into Penn Cove. When the captors saw them, they quickly sent the seiners out to set another net around them. By now there were almost a hundred whales captured, including at least 12 between the ages of two and five, the right ages for shipping and training. The captors set about pushing the adults, first the males and then the mothers of young ones, out beyond the outside nets.

Several drowned trying to reunite

By all accounts the whales were extremely agitated, both inside and outside the nets. They were breaching high out of the water and slapping their flukes and flippers, creating a background staccato of gunshot-like explosions. They repeatedly spyhopped as high as possible to see what was going on. Piercing, screaming vocalizations were heard incessantly both above and below water.

Soon after the nets were drawn shut four babies less than two years old charged into the net to rejoin their mothers and got caught in the nets. For a time they were in bodily contact with their mothers and other family members through the net, but as they twisted and convulsed to get free, the net wrapped tightly around them and they drowned. One of the mothers tried to force her way into the net, only to get tangled herself and also drown. The female’s death was discovered by reporters when she drowned, but the carcasses of the babies were hidden from the public. They were weighted with rocks and wrapped in anchor chains, then taken away at night for secret disposal.

Meanwhile, calls were made to aquariums around the world to announce that killer whales were for sale. Dr. Jesse White, veterinarian for the Miami Seaquarium, came to Washington to select one to become a female companion for Hugo, the three year old male captured over a year earlier and sold to the Seaquarium. He admired a particular little female and soon chose her. Dr. White had visited a curio shop while in Seattle and saw the name Tokitae on a carving, a name he bestowed on the little whale who seemed “so courageous, and yet so gentle.” In Miami she became a show business personality, however, so she needed a name that said Miami, not Seattle. Her stage name became Lolita.

Of the six other young whales, two were shipped to marine parks in Japan, and one each went to parks in Texas, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. They were all very young calves, but, except for Lolita, they survived an average of less than five years.

In mid-November a trawler dragged the bodies of the drowned infants into its net. The captain of the fishing boat deposited the dead baby whales on a beach in front of a Seattle newspaper reporter, and the story was immediately told to the world. Six years later this discovery played a major role in a court decision that banned Sea World from ever capturing another killer whale in Washington State.

When Lolita arrived in Miami, she was reunited with Hugo, the young male captured at Carr Inlet a year earlier. Hugo and Lolita were probably closely related, though no one knew that at the time. For almost ten years they shared their tiny, clattering tank. Then in March of 1980, just about the time Hugo’s adolescent hormones began to kick in at the age of about 15, he rammed the wall of the tank and died. The official report said he died of a brain aneurysm. Lolita, “so courageous yet so gentle,” continued to perform her shows.

In 1987, the Society of Marine Mammalogists held its bi-annual conference in Miami. Ken Balcomb knew that Lolita was from the Southern Community, because he had been studying just that population for over ten years. In 1987 Lolita was already the only survivor of the approximately 58 orcas that had been taken from Puget Sound.

Balcomb approached the Seaquarium with a novel proposal. Why not play some tapes of Lolita’s pod to her, just to see, and record, what might happen? Some of the trainers thought it might be a neat idea, but the management, possibly sensing that too much sympathy for the whale would result from publicity surrounding the experiment, refused to allow it. Balcomb then proposed leasing Lolita temporarily to conduct the experiment. Nope.

Lolita suffers from boredom

In 1992 Balcomb proposed that the experiment be incorporated into the show as an “exciting new acoustic program.” Hurricane Andrew had just blasted through the Seaquarium, electrocuting six sea lions in another tank, so Balcomb also offered to buy her, just in case the park had been put out of business. No deal.

Meanwhile, Lolita continues performing her shows by day, and bobbing listlessly between shows and all night long. Like all whales and dolphins, Lolita doesn’t sleep. Cetaceans have to remain conscious to control their breathing.

Lolita’s Life Today:

Though a young and healthy adult at about age 42, Lolita is the oldest whale in captivity, kept in the oldest and smallest orca tank in the U.S. The owner was quoted in a tourist trade magazine saying: “We recognize that the facility needs a pretty major upgrade, some aspects of the facility are functionally obsolete.” In January, 2002 the Seaquarium admitted they simply don’t have the cash to build a new whale stadium in the foreseeable future. Lolita's only orca friend is a children's inflatable toyFor the past 39 years, Lolita has performed reliably, entertaining visitors to the Miami Seaquarium with her power and grace. She has no other choice but to perform her routines to avoid reprimands from her trainers. Trainers may also deprive her of either food or attention and affection if she does not perform on cue. Shet ends to want to accomodate what is asked of her, so very little coercion is required, and as we learn more about orcas it’s becoming ever more clear that they tend to want to understand what they are supposed to do, and act accordingly. On occasion she has refused to perform, but fortunately for her mental health those angry or depressed moods seem to be rare. This even temperament may be a clue to her astounding longevity in captivity.Provided with good companionship and medical care, she has proven to be exceptionally robust, outliving by over two decades all of the 44 other whales from her community that survived capture operations and were delivered to parks within three years of her capture. Nevertheless, by most accounts, one way or another Lolita’s performing days will come to an end soon, probably within a few years. Lolita is the oldest whale in captivity today.Lolita is believed to be about 22 feet in length, weighs about 8,000 pounds, and is in good physical and mental health in spite of the fact that she has been held without other orcas since Hugo died in 1980. She is maintained in natural seawater drawn from Biscayne Bay and chilled to about 60° F, which is optimum for her in the Florida environment.

Lolita has barely enough room to breach

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has objected to the Federal Government’s failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act in regard to the small size of Lolita’s tank. In short, the minimum horizontal dimension should, by law, be at least 48′ wide in both directions. From the front wall to the wall that forms the barrier the pool is only 35′ wide. The USDA says the barrier “does not present a significant obstruction” for Lolita, as if she can simply swim through the wall. Orcas swim an average of 80 miles a day, the tank at the Miami Seaquarium is a mere 80′ x 73′. Lolita’s tank is not a reasonable habitat for a whale. Read and send the letter to the USDA to register a formal complaint.

Lolita's total room to moveHer main problems have resulted from her solitary confinement and separation from her family, conbined with a lack of normal physical activity and environmental stimulation. Lolita’s only orca friend is a child’s inflatable toy. Lolita is the last surviving killer whale in captivity from Washington State, and 12 of her relatives who were present with her at capture are still alive as of 2009, including L25, consoidered to be Lolita’s possible mother based on analysis of the calls Lolita continues to make in her tank.

Like most, probably all, orcas, Lolita yearns to bond with another caring, sentient being. In the absence of any other whales, she looks toward her trainers for companionship. Marcia Henton was Lolita’s trainer from 1988 until the fall of 1995. Henton seemed to respond to Lolita’s desire for a companion. “It was like having a best friend that you get to see every day. She likes a lot of close contact” she said. “It’s a very unique experience. When she comes over to me, when we’re interacting together, she looks right into my eyes. It almost feels like…my soul is open to her,” said Henton.

Lolita has also demonstrated her incredible memory. Henton talks about finding an old hand signal book in a locker at the park that hasn’t been used since she took over as her trainer. Just to see what would happen, she tried out some of the signals. The results surprised even her: “I can walk up and give her a signal she hasn’t seen in at least eight years, and she remembers it.”

Keith Henderson of Dateline-NBC played a tape of Lolita's family

In 1996 Keith Henderson of Dateline-NBC played a tape of Lolita’s family. The tape was recorded in July, 1995, during a superpod event in the Pacific Northwest. A superpod is a reunion of the three pods that make up Lolita’s extended family, the Southern Resident community. Lolita still makes the calls of her subpod, the L25 subpod, named for the presumed matriarch. These calls are unique to the L25 subpod.

Lolita, like Namu before her, always tries to create a bond of friendship with a trusted companion. This gives us an indication of her normal, natural relationships with family members. She can perfectly remember the meaning of a hand signal that she hasn’t seen in more than eight years, that asks her to perform a silly trick. Indications are that if she were allowed to be reunited with her family, even by an acoustic linkup, Lolita would remember how to communicate with her mother and the rest of her family, and they would remember her. Lolita still makes her family’s calls. There are four living females among the L-25’s who are the right age to possibly be Lolita’s mother.

In late July of 1994, during production of the movie Free Willy 2 on San Juan Island, Governor Mike Lowry came to participate in a town meeting and visit the movie set. Balcomb met Governor Lowry and told him about Lolita, the last survivor of Washington State’s capture era. Lowry took an interest in helping bring Lolita home, and asked his policy advisor to act as coordinator to marshall state agencies to help prepare for Lolita’s rehabilitation seapen.

Lowry teamed up with Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a dedicated opponent of the orca display industry since he and his wife witnessed a capture in 1976. On March 9, 1995, Lowry and Munro, along with Balcomb, held a press conference at the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle to announce the start of a campaign to bring Lolita home. Lowry declared his intention to help Lolita return “as a citizen of the state of Washington.”

When Lolita stands vertically, her tail scrapes the bottom

Munro and Lowry have since jointly written three letters to Art Hertz, owner of the Seaquarium, repeatedly offering a variety of ideas to compensate for the potential loss of income that Lolita is now generating. Hertz said that “The most prestigious scientists from around the nation inform us that releasing Lolita into the wild would be immoral, inhumane and unethical.” Hertz claimed that if released, Lolita would continue to respond to humans, that she would not be able to catch live fish, that she would not be accepted by any social group, and that she might catch or spread a disease. Lowry and Munro responded to these concerns by again proposing an acoustic experiment that might resolve some of them, and by inviting Hertz or his staff to a meeting that was held during the American Zoological Association conference in Seattle in September, 1995, to discuss all the criteria that would need to be met. Hertz has not answered that letter, but Munro and Lowry wrote him another letter in January, 1996, again inviting Hertz to visit Washington to see some wild whales for himself, and offering to collaborate with Hertz to help produce a cinematic production as part of a compensation package to secure Lolita’s return to her home waters. Still no deal.

In November, 1995, the Seaquarium replaced several of Lolita’s caretakers, including Marcia Henton, possibly in retribution for giving such a revealing interview. For a time afterward, Lolita seemed to have lost much of her energy. Her performances were lackluster, her breaches were half-breaches, and between shows she dropped to the bottom of the tank most of the time. Or she hovered at the surface near the edge of the tank, as if waiting for someone to come by to keep her company.

Lolita suffers from boredomTrainers at the Seaquarium usually seem to care for Lolita and try to give her companionship. She seems to enjoy their presence, but when compared to the 24-hour a day, lifetime company she could have with her real family, such playful moments are clearly insufficient.

Biologically and logistically she is an excellent candidate for return to her home waters to be retired in a monitored seapen in preparation for rejoining her family, but objections to her return by the park have so far prevented the move. It is important to note that even in the largest and most modern marine park facilities, survival for killer whales is significantly reduced (See Small, R. and D. DeMaster, 1995a. Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science 11(2):209-226.)

Only Corky, a Northern Resident orca held at the San Diego Sea World, was taken before Lolita and remains alive today. Lolita remains healthy, but orcas in tanks usually die of massive internal infections that prove lethal within a few days or hours of first detection. So courageous and yet so gentle, but how much longer can she stay alive in a concrete bowl?

OK, Zach’s writing again now, lol

Do you know what I don’t get? How people come up with justifications about how she’s “educational” and how they’re trying to save endangered species, etc., while ignoring the fact that they’ve taken away her choice in the matter? I CAN’T WRAP MY MIND AROUND THAT PERSPECTIVE. How do you NOT see that kidnapping her was wrong and KEEPING her in a puddle surrounded by land is putting her in a prison cell? Even human prisoners are allowed to move about, go outside, etc. She’s in a cell that, by human equivalents, would be about 4 feet square! HOW LONG COULD ANY OF US STAND BEING LOCKED UP IN SOMETHING THAT SMALL? And she’s built to do 35 mph… not to mention the vulgar cruelty of keeping her from her own kind.

Wait, I do get it. It can only be explained by the fact that all they care about is money, like stated in the video ( My opinion is that the “education” LIE is a cover-up for what’s really going on…a FREAKING SCAM FROM HEARTLESS FREAKING PEOPLE! You can learn MORE about them in their natural habitat. You wanna know something else? Where I live, in San Diego, an Orca at SeaWorld, named Orchid, was captured in Taiji 13 years ago. Trainers that go there say that they “Love dolphins,” when they don’t even show ANY sign of heart for the rest of the dolphins being mercilessly slaughtered.

One response to “Lolita: Her Life Story

  1. Pingback: Dolphin Captivity and Slaughter FAQ « Zach Affolter's Blog

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