Fifty years ago on Aug. 8, Lolita was a baby orca, without a stage name. That changed forever that day in Penn Cove, when she was rounded up and captured for sale to the Miami Seaquarium, where she still lives today.
Lolita is the sole survivor of the southern resident orcas captured for the aquarium trade, which took a third of the J, K, and L pods beginning in the late 1960s until Washington leaders worked to outlaw the hunts in 1976.
The southern residents rebuilt in population, but are now at the lowest number since the capture era because of a triple threat to their survival of decreasing chinook salmon runs, vessel noise and disturbance, and pollution. There are only 72 left in the wild, plus Lolita.
Lolita has a quiet life these days at the Miami Seaquarium, which has been closed almost continuously since March 13, because of the emergency order issued by Miami Dade County shuttering businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Her exhibit also was closed last fall during the park’s slow season for maintenance, reopening Dec. 27 for daily shows, said Robert Rose, curator emeritus at the Seaquarium, in an email to The Seattle Times.
There have been repeated efforts to free Lolita, also called Tokitae, and return her for retirement in a netted cove in her home waters. A former governor (the late Mike Lowry) and generation of activists have not succeeded in bringing her home. Now a new team from the Lummi Nation says they are convinced she will come home, and by the end of the year.
Lummi tribal members have filed a notice of intent to sue the Seaquarium for the return of Lolita, whom they regard as a member of their family. Because she is their relative, they will never give up on her, or be discouraged, said Lummi Tribal member and elder Raynell Morris, who is working on the quest to bring her home.
“We have full faith that she will be home,” Morris said. “Whether it is the legal avenue, or the public will, that the Miami Seaquarium owners see it is time to retire her, and time to set her free, as being the right thing.”
The Miami Seaquarium maintains she is better off where she is.
“We have provided and cared for Lolita for five decades,” Rose wrote in the email. “She is a remarkable animal and we are devoted to her. Her longevity is a testament to the excellent care she receives daily from our animal and veterinary care staff.”
Moving Lolita, 54, could endanger her life, Rose wrote. “Attention of those concerned should be on the plight of the critically endangered orcas currently residing in Puget Sound.”
The average life span for a female orca is 50 years, with some individuals persisting into great age, even 80 to 100 years, according to the nonprofit Center for Whale Research.
There will be multiple observances of Lolita’s capture in a free Zoom webinar, from 2-5 p.m. Saturday.