Kate on Conservation

Lolita the orca: 50 years in a tank


Fifty years ago, one of the worst atrocities of animal welfare took place. In the largest capture of wild orcas in history, more than 90 of the marine mammals were rounded up in Penn Cove and seven young southern resident killer whales were captured using nets and explosives, then sold to aquariums. Only one of those abducted on 8th August 1970 is still alive; Lolita. 

I’m proud to share this guest post telling Lolita’s story from none other than my husband. Nick Stephenson has joined me on numerous ‘Empty the Tank’ protests, and other animal rights’ marches; we’ve been reduced to tears together watching films like Blackfish and The Cove; and we’ve changed our diet and lifestyle in unison; going meat-free, dairy-free and cruelty-free together. It means a lot to me to share his thoughts and feelings about the tragic tale of Lolita…

50 Years Quarantined in Miami Seaquarium

Yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of the cruel capture of Lolita — originally called Tokitae (or “Toki” the name she recognises) — the only freeborn orca still in captivity in the US. 

At only 4 years old, Lolita was torn away for her family (known as a ‘pod’) and in 1970 was sold to Miami Seaquarium for $20,000, where she has remained for the last 50 years — confined to a tank that is only as deep as her body length. A tank that doesn’t meet the federal Animal Welfare Act’s adequate minimum size requirements, and leaves her mostly without shelter; hot and blistered in the Florida heat. 

To put this abysmal imprisonment into perspective, wild orcas spend 90 percent of their time underwater and actually need to swim distances of up 40 miles a day on average for exercise. One study by International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List found a group of orcas traveling all the way from the waters of Alaska to those near central California — a distance of more than 2,000 kilometres (more than 1,200 miles).

Black Fish

Like so many who care for the welfare of animals in or out of captivity, I first became aware of the terrible struggle that orca’s in captivity endure from the film Black Fish.

My wife, conservation blogger and journalist Kate on Conservation, suggested we watch Black Fish a few years ago; to learn more about the captivity of Tilikum — an orca involved in the deaths of three people at Sea World, Florida (you can find out more about him here) — and the consequences of keeping orcas in tanks for the sole purpose of public entertainment.

Blackfish poster

The Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed documentary made a lasting impression on me, and is a powerful and often harrowing example of the damage caused to these beautiful creatures by years of confinement. In the case of Tilikum, it was this psychological damage that resulted in his fatal aggression towards three humans, two of whom were his trainers.

It was hard to see this story unfold and I spent most of the film feeling sad and angry that we, as a so-called sentient species, could inflict such prolonged misery on another living, highly intelligent, sentient being for amusement — in what is essentially a sea circus. The fact that this is nothing new and still hasn’t gone away makes it all the more tragic. [You can explores the reality of orcas in captivity here]

Joining a Empty The Tanks protest in London after watching Blackfish

Lolita: A Slave to Entertainment

8th August 1970, Penn Cove, Washington was the scene of a barbaric and now infamous whale round up. As well as the nine orcas abducted to live in captivity that day; 15 adult killer whales fought for their lives and lost in capture operation known as Namu, Inc.

Lolita, then known as Tokitae, was one of seven young whales sold to marine parks around the world from a roundup of over 90 orcas.

Lolita’s story is perhaps even more tragic, not least because her time in captivity has been much longer than that of other orcas in the US (Tilikum by comparison was captured in 1983 and died in 2017, age 35).

Her 50 year imprisonment has been without human fatality and subsequently has resulted in less fanfare than that of Tilikum (despite Lolita also being the subject of a documentary, 2003’s Lolita: Slave to Entertainment). Her life passing by in lonely confinement, without known aggression towards humans; she is quietly suffering and psychology damage as a result of very little stimulation and no interaction with other orcas.

Retire Lolita the orca

1980 saw the death of her tank mate Hugo who died after displaying what is known as ‘zoochotic behaviour’ (the term used to describe the stereotypical behaviour of animals in captivity — repetitive patterns with no obvious goal or function) Hugo died after repeatedly ramming his head into the tank wall, leaving Lolita without an orca companion for the next 40 years.

Lolita is Seaquarium’s main attraction and remains a money making possession so prized that officials maintain their grip on her despite years of protests by activists and animal experts who cite evidence that her living situation is legally and ethically unacceptable.

This impassioned and unrelating activism for her release back into the wild has become far reaching. On January 17, 2015, thousands of protesters from all over the world gathered outside the Seaquarium to ask for Lolita’s release, and asked other supporters worldwide to stand with her and tweet #FreeLolita on Twitter. 

Empty the tanks - free Lolita
Activist and ex-dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry lead an Empty The Tanks protest in London, 2016.

The Lummi Tribe

One thing that I feel is important to highlight, especially in 2020 when many people are realising the importance of ‘Intersectional Environmentalism‘, is how Lolita’s supporters span different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs.

Everyone from celebrities such as Ric O’Barry (former Flipper trainer) to conservation biologists such as Alexandrea Safiq have expressed their concern for Lolita’s welfare.

In her blog Free Lolita, the Killer Whale!, Alexandrea highlights the plight of an indigenous Lummi tribe who, over the last few years have been intent on raising awareness and freeing Lolita back into the wild:

“Many indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years that the success and sustainability of society depends upon our relationship to the natural environment and have tried at great lengths to share this knowledge with us. And it’s about time that we listen” 

As indigenous Americans, members of the Lummi Nation have claimed the whale as one of their own.

Lummi pilgrimage to Lolita

The tribe made a 7,000-mile round trip to the Miami Seaquarium where they found Lolita being made to perform tricks twice a day for visitors.

Outside the park they blessed a 16-foot totem carving of her and gave Lolita a Lummi name, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, taken from a village that once stood at the site of her capture.

Lummi tribal member Douglas James explains: “It’s a deep respect for these mammals that we have, because from the beginning of time we’ve existed simultaneously.”

In Tim Joyce’s article for Q13 Fox ‘Battle lines drawn in new fight to free Puget Sound whale Tokitae/Lolita from Miami Seaquarium‘, Jewell James of the Lummi Tribe describes the incredible 16-foot orca totem pole — created to show ‘that people still do care.’

“On this killer whale, we carved the head like a wolf,” says Jewell James. “That’s because for us the killer whales are considered the wolves of the sea. They run in packs or run in pods. They’re organized socially.”

Below the whale are two pedestals, six feet across, carved into the shape of seals.

“It’s important to show symbolically that we’re saying we’re all related,” says Jewell. “We all have to unite to protest the Salish Sea.”

“The waters of Puget Sound and all the creatures above and below the water have helped form the culture of the Lummi people. But, the calm Puget Sound waters were anything but peaceful in August 1970. We think of it as a massacre…It’s time to let her go

The Lummi tribe’s journey to Miami Seaquarium was hugely significant as it serves to remind us of the importance of our connection to the natural world, forcing us to question our treatment towards other species whilst demanding the release of Lolita.

Releasing Lolita back into the wild

Lummi Tribe intend to release Tokitae back to her native environment in the Salish sea, which fortunately still remains in tact. This would likely be a successful reintroduction for a number of reasons; including the fact her mother is still alive and Lolita would therefore stand a high chance of being remembered and accepted back into her family circles. The tribe says Tokitae still sings the songs of her pod and her family so would be instantly recognised.

In her first four years of life before capture, Lolita would have also learnt to hunt and therefore would be able to survive in the wild, unlike orcas born into captivity.

Lummi are putting in every effort to ensure that Lolita’s transfer back to her native waters happens. This includes buying up a large part of land on Orcas Island to be prepared especially for her to be reintegrated back to her natural habitat. 

Despite the protests and hard, compassionate work going into saving Lolita, Miami Seaquarium are outright refusing to release her, stating that it would be a huge health risk to her and the rest of the wild killer whale population.

But the Lummi Nation will never give up until she is free. “We believe that we will not stop until successful,” says Jewell James.

The Lummi tribe’s approach to caring for nature couldn’t be more relevant today, especially with such worrying concerns as the current decline of biodiversity. It has become something at the forefront of much conservation conversation.

Retire Lolita

After hearing of the Lummi’s battle and seeing films such as Black Fish and The Cove, I feel that nothing is more inspiring than the kind of determination displayed by the Lummi Tribe to do the right thing and liberate species like the dolphin and orca. Nothing is more humane in fact.

Ric O’Barry and Animal rights advocate Dominic Dyer at the Empty The Tanks protest, London 2016

These animals were not made for our amusement, nor should they be exploited, imprisoned or tortured for any reason, be it financial gain or entertainment.

We need to value them for their wildness and their differences/similarities to the human race, just as we need to do the same for other races and cultures within our own species. Tokitae’s release would be a shining example of how humanity prevails and would go far in repairing the relationship between humans and other species.

I hope from the bottom of my heart that the Lummi succeed in releasing Lolita. #FreeLolita

Please sign the petition to call for Lolita / Tokitae’s freedom: https://www.change.org/p/support-lolita-s-retirement

About the author

ZEBRA and Nick Stephenson at World of Wildlife Exhibition: In support of elephants

Nick Stephenson is a singer/songwriter with a passion for nature and wildlife. Earlier this year, he released a fundraising single for One Man Rescue campaign. His rendition of the song ‘Born Free‘ has helped to raise money for the charity at fundraising events.

Find out more about whale and dolphin conservation here: dolphinproject.com

Learn more about orca in captivity

5 thoughts on “Lolita the orca: 50 years in a tank

  1. I remember going to the Miami Seaquarium when I was a little kid. That would have been before they purchased Lolita, but I remember watching a show with some other orca (assuming my memory is accurate.) I can understand their unwillingness to give up such a major attraction. Still, it’s awful to keep her under such horrible conditions.

    1. That’s the sad thing about it all — as long as these animals are making money, they will never see freedom :(. I remember going to SeaWorld as child and seeing Tilikum (show name Shamu) perform. I didn’t know any better then, but hopefully there’s a lot more information out there now, that will keep spreading awareness. We need as many people as possible to realise it’s exploitation, not entertainment.

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