Lolita's life changed on Aug. 8, 1970, when the capture nets closed in on her family of orca whales. Her days of swimming and foraging for...

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Lolita’s life changed on Aug. 8, 1970, when the capture nets closed in on her family of orca whales. Her days of swimming and foraging for salmon in Puget Sound ended abruptly, and she was sold to the Miami Seaquarium to live out her days as a performer.

After more than 25,000 shows, Lolita continues to be an attraction at the Seaquarium.

While Florida may be a retirement haven for people, the performing-mammal industry has no retirement plan. But Lolita has family and friends in Washington state, and those friends want to bring her home to retire.

The family is a group of 43 orcas, known as L pod, from which she was taken. Lolita continues to vocalize in her native L pod language, which orca experts say may help her to be recognized after such a long absence. Fourteen of the whales who were in the area with Lolita are still alive.

The friends are human supporters willing to pay for her return to Puget Sound and for rehabilitation they hope would lead to her release.

Most recently, actor Raul Julia-Levy has indicated an interest in putting together a group of actors, musicians and politicians to call publicly for Lolita’s release. And the 1970 capture of Lolita and other orcas will be among the topics discussed at a whale conference Saturday in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Coupeville overlooks Penn Cove, where the orcas were captured.

Efforts to bring Lolita home began in 1995, when Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research, and then-Gov. Mike Lowry first called for her return.

Orca Network, a nonprofit advocacy group on Whidbey Island, offered $1 million for Lolita in 1996. Miami Seaquarium turned that down, as well as a quiet offer of $1 million-plus a few years later from the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.

Endangered status

Lolita’s family, the southern resident orcas, was listed as endangered in 2005. This distinct group of 88 whales comprises the J, K and L pods, which are referred to as the southern residents for their annual return to the waters of Puget Sound and southern British Columbia. Of the southern residents the National Marine Fisheries Services recorded as captured during the 1960s and ’70s, Lolita is the only known survivor.

Miami Seaquarium says that endangered status is the best reason for Lolita to stay in her present home.

“It would be irresponsible for us to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety,” said Carolina Perrina, public-relations coordinator for the Seaquarium, “especially given the fact that scientists have added the members of the resident community of orcas, who reside in the waters of Puget Sound, on the endangered-species list due to a distressed ecosystem.

“Lolita has learned to trust humans completely, and this long-standing behavioral trust would be dangerous for her if she were returned to Puget Sound, where commercial boat traffic and human activity are heavy.”

Orcas’ capture contributed to their endangered status. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the captures “likely depressed their population size and altered the population characteristics sufficiently to severely affect their reproduction and persistence.”

Lolita was one of 80 orcas herded into Penn Cove on Whidbey Island on Aug. 8, 1970. That day, six whales were captured, and five were killed in the process. According to the National Marine Fisheries Services, at least 47 southern resident orcas were killed or captured between 1965 and 1973.

While capturing orcas is not illegal in Washington waters, no permits have been granted since San Diego’s SeaWorld netted some in 1976. They were later released after SeaWorld lost a court case related to the capture.

Stardom on the wane

When Lolita arrived at Miami Seaquarium, she was just a few years old. Hugo, an orca captured from her extended family, greeted her. Lolita became a performer and earned her stage name, the Star of Miami.

Today, that star is fading. Her companion died 27 years ago, leaving this social creature alone except for three dolphins who share a tank with her that measures 80 feet across at its widest point.

Nor does Miami Seaquarium give Lolita star billing anymore. The entrance sign touts its new “dolphin encounter” program. The only postcard available features Salty the Sea Lion. Except for the hour she performs each day, Lolita, unlike the other animals, is hidden from view in her locked stadium.

If you ask Florida residents about Lolita, many have a look of distant recognition. Lifelong Miamians remember her fondly but seem surprised she is still alive. Female orcas can live 80 to 90 years in the wild, but Lolita is believed to be the oldest whale in captivity. Now an estimated 40 years old, she has grown to 20 feet long and remains in good health.

Stacy Leets, who works nearby and brought her young daughter for her first visit to the Seaquarium on a sunny day in December, expresses concern about Lolita’s environment and even rethinks her decision to come to the park: “I don’t know if I want to come back anymore. It kind of reminds me of the circus.”

Miami Seaquarium prides itself on helping endangered species but doesn’t publicly acknowledge that Lolita qualifies for this designation. The Seaquarium rescues, rehabilitates and releases manatees and sea turtles. The sea-lion show even includes a pitch for protecting the endangered conch.

“Lolita plays an important role in educating the public about the need to conserve killer whales that populate our Northwestern shores,” Perrina said. “She plays a vital role in our society’s understanding and appreciation of these magnificent animals.”

Family matters

The work done by the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor has made the orcas that swim in Puget Sound — including Lolita’s family — the most extensively studied group of whales in the world. Relying on the unique characteristics of their dorsal fins and “saddle patches” (gray markings behind the fin), each whale has been tracked and identified yearly for more than three decades.

Lolita would be set free only if contact could be established with her family. Orca Network believes the support of her family would be crucial for her survival in the wild.

For this reason, a rehabilitative pen would be placed on the west side of San Juan Island, a location the L pod passes almost daily in summer. There, Lolita would build her strength and learn to catch her own food.

Orca Network founder Howard Garrett thinks that three of the pod’s matriarchs, each of whom could be Lolita’s mother, would accept her and that the others would follow.

“We assume with recognition of her vocal call, she would be recognized right away. That is ascribing some pretty high abilities to them, but I think it is warranted.”