November 20, 2017
For nearly 25 years, the Miami Seaquarium’s killer whale, Lolita, has been the star of a sequel that has never been made.
In 1995, inspired by the original tale of Keiko, the whale in the 1993 film “Free Willy,” a Washington state governor sought to make Lolita the next captive killer whale returned to the ocean. A fundraising campaign ensued, and soon it seemed that Free Lolita could be the next real-life Free Willy.
Former Gov. Mike Lowry’s vision has since spawned thousands of dollars in donations, several lawsuits and annual protests at the Miami Seaquarium on Aug. 8 — the anniversary of Lolita’s 1970 capture off Puget Sound. Moms with their kids, college students in whale costumes and out-of-state advocates turn up on Virginia Key each year to support the Free Lolita movement.
But often lost in the well-meaning attempts to return Lolita home is one central question: Is freedom really what’s best for her?
The orca, now about 50 years old, remains the last known survivor of the group of more than 50 whales captured 47 years ago. Since her mate died of a brain aneurysm in 1980, she has become the only solitary orca in captivity, where she lives in the smallest killer whale tank in the nation.
As the years have passed, the likelihood of her return to the sea — and her ability to adjust to that change — has become less likely, said Russ Rector, a long-time marine mammal advocate. Lolita’s identity as a living being has been usurped, he said.
“She is just a casualty of captivity and the activists. She has become an icon that quite frankly, nothing has been done for her except a slogan: ‘Free Lolita, Free Lolita,’ ” Rector said. “I’m sure Lolita appreciates that.”
She is just a casualty of captivity and the activists. She has become an icon that quite frankly, nothing been done for her except a slogan: ‘Free Lolita, Free Lolita.’ I’m sure Lolita appreciates that.
Russ Rector, animal activist
In recent years, Lolita’s story has been awash in a tidal wave of public opinion that has crashed against marine parks that house captive animals. Kick-started by the release of “Blackfish,” a 2013 documentary detailing the plight of orcas in captivity, the change in public perception has caused shares of marine theme park company SeaWorld to sink by about 40 percent this year alone. Key to that shift was the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca following a performance at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. SeaWorld has since announced it would end its breeding program for captive orcas.
The “Free Lolita” movement has outlived even its creator, Lowry, who died in March. But the donations keep piling up, the protests go on, and plans for her release continue to resurface.
Just last month, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously passed a resolution urging the Seaquarium to retire Lolita based on the recommendations of a long-standing retirement plan originally created in 1996 by the nonprofit Tokitae Foundation (Tokitae was given the stage name “Lolita” by the Seaquarium) which later became Orca Conservancy. It involves transferring Lolita to a seaside sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest, in her native home, teaching her to fend for herself, and eventually releasing her back into the wild.
But at this point in her life, Lolita may never get to test her retirement plan. She may never be the sequel.
And that’s probably in her best interest, some experts say.
The Challenge of Release
It was late one night in 1989 when Craig Pelton, then a young whale trainer, snuck into the whale stadium at Miami Seaquarium after it closed and waded into the 50 degree water.
After-hours whale swims were categorically prohibited, so, naturally, the trainers did it from time to time, Pelton said. It was a time before “Blackfish,” before a trainer had been killed by a captive whale, before the “Free Lolita” movement started making waves.
In the water, Pelton watched as Lolita swam over. The orca was in her mid-20s by then, about 20 feet long and 7,000 pounds. A full moon illuminated the stadium below.
Lolita paused and put her pectoral fin under his body — then she snuggled to his side. On Pelton’s other side, Lolita’s tank mate Makani, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, did the same.
“I laid there for about five, 10 minutes, all three [of us] at the surface,” Pelton said. “She was just a sweet animal that was just amazing to work with.”
By the time he left the park in 1991, Pelton said he learned how limited Lolita’s ability to adjust to new surroundings already had become. Pelton, now an assistant clinical professor at the University of Florida’s veterinary college, recalls the day he started at the Seaquarium, when the park installed a slide-out platform to her tank for performances. Lolita struggled to adjust to the change, Pelton said. . . . . . .
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