There’s DDT in the Ocean

DDT is good for me advertisement with a woman, cow, dog, chicken, apple and potato singing.
‘DDT is good for me’ advertisement. Detail of Penn Salt chemicals advertisement in Time Magazine June 30, 1947. AP2 .T37 v.49 pt. 2. Provided by the Crossett Library at Bennington College on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In late 2020, scientists discovered that up to 500,000 barrels of DDT, a highly toxic and banned pesticide, had been dumped in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. To make matters worse, the barrels are leaking. Some barrels, unbelievably, are leaking because they were deliberately punctured to make them sink easier. DDT is super toxic, so how did this happen?

Montrose Chemical Corporation

Montrose Chemical was the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT, located in Los Angeles. Starting in 1947 and continuing through 1961 (and perhaps even later), the company instructed its employees to transport barrels of DDT and acid sludge waste and dump them into the ocean. 

This is in addition to a DDT deposit of about 110 tons on the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, covering 17 square miles of ocean floor. From 1947 until 1971, Montrose discharged DDT into Los Angeles County sewers that empty into the ocean. It is the largest known deposit of DDT in the world and the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 1996. The fish found in the Palos Verdes Shelf area contain high concentrations of DDT as well as PCBs.

So for decades, Montrose Chemical dumped DDT and DDT acid sludge both down the drains and into the ocean. But the barrels likely caused far more damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, a sediment sample showed DDT concentrations 40 times greater in the ocean floor from the barrel dumpings than the highest contamination recorded at the Superfund site created by the DDT sewer discharges.1

Now back at that time, the common ‘wisdom’ was that the ocean was so big that it would dilute even the most dangerous poisons. It’s hard to believe now that ocean dumping was an accepted practice then, but laws protecting the ocean didn’t exist. “Federal ocean dumping laws dated back to 1886, but the rules were focused on clearing the way for ship navigation. It wasn’t until the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, that environmental impacts were considered.”2

There have been several lawsuits filed against Montrose and its successor company, Bayer Corporation. As of October 2021, the companies settled and have agreed to pay for the cleanup of contaminated groundwater at the Montrose Chemical Superfund sites in Los Angeles County. In May 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against Montrose and Bayer. It calls for the companies to take responsibility for the areas affected by the DDT barrel dumping.3

 But the damage is already done. 

The Los Angeles Times wrote a comprehensive and fascinating series of articles on the Montrose DDT ocean dumping. I’ve listed them under Additional Resources and I encourage you to read them.

“DDT — the all-but-indestructible compound dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which first stunned and jolted the public into environmental action — persists as an unsolved and largely forgotten problem.” -Los Angeles Times4

DDT’s History

While many people have heard of DDT, and may even be generally aware that it is ‘bad,’ they do not know exactly what it is or how it was used.

DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was first concocted by a German chemist in 1874. But someone discovered it was powerful as a synthetic insecticide in the 1940s. “It was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human diseases among both military and civilian populations. It also was effective for insect control in crop and livestock production, institutions, homes, and gardens.”5

The military used DDT to treat and prevent lice in soldiers during World War II. “The U.S. Army’s chief of preventive medicine, Brig. Gen. James Simmons, famously praised the chemical as ‘the war’s greatest contribution to the future health of the world.'”6 After WWII, it was sprayed everywhere and sold in household products and in lice treatments. Companies even advertised it as safe for children.

"No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT - Black Flag" vintage advertisement with a photo of a baby
“No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT – Black Flag” vintage advertisement. Uploaded by Seth Anderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For decades, this chemical was used in neighborhoods, recreation areas, agricultural areas, and farms. Fogging trucks sprayed it in residential areas, such as neighborhoods and beaches, and airplanes sprayed over vast swaths of agricultural land. “During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, approximately 675,000 tons of DDT were applied to U.S. soil. The peak year for use in the United States was 1959 – nearly 80 million pounds were applied.”7

1962. TBM spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington.
1962. TBM plane spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington. Credit: USDA Forest Service, Region 6, State and Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection.

“During summers in New Jersey, I remember the fog machine – at least, that’s what we called it, the fog machine; we loved it because it spewed out this mist, and my sisters and I would go riding after it on our bicycles so we could get lost in the fog. I remember our mother screaming at us to get away from it, just screaming. These were exterminators, who came almost every evening in the summer when the sun was setting, to kill mosquitos…I cannot imagine how they sprayed pesticides like that every night, and that kids were allowed to be out there in it.” -Alice Waters, referring to DDT fogging trucks8

DDT spraying on Darwin's RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962, Australia,
“Photograph 0078 – Darwin’s RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962,” Australia, photo uploaded by Ken Hodge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Banning DDT

Studies into the effects of DDT started as early as 1945, and scientists discovered fish, birds, and mammals died from exposure to it. Rachel Carson, a writer, scientist, and ecologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, wrote some of the press releases about these studies and proposed writing a story for Reader’s Digest to reach a wider audience. But the publication turned her down. The New Yorker released Silent Spring as a series, and then Carson published the book in 1962.9 It “exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement.”10

At the very end of 1972, the EPA banned DDT use based on its adverse environmental effects, such as those to wildlife, as well as being a human carcinogen. Carson, herself, died of breast cancer at age 56, in 1964. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

“We have seen that [pesticides] now contaminate soil, water, and food, that they have the power to make our streams fishless and our gardens and woodlands silent and birdless.” -Rachel Carson

Painted Sloss DDT advertisement on the side of a building, 6% DDT
“Sloss DDT advert[isement]” by Francis Storr on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

DDT is Extremely Toxic and Poisonous 

DDT is highly persistent in the environment and in the body, meaning it does not dissolve or wash away. After the use of DDT was banned in the U.S., its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, it still poisons.1314 

DDT is absorbed by ingesting, breathing, or touching products contaminated with the chemical. But people are most likely to be exposed to DDT from eating meat, fish, and dairy products. In the body, DDT is converted into several breakdown products called metabolites. One of these includes the metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE). Both DDT and DDE are bio accumulators, meaning the chemicals accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues. In pregnant women, DDT and DDE can be passed to the fetus and both chemicals are found in breast milk.15

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” -Rachel Carson16

Brown pelican close-up, with ocean water in background.
Brown Pelican, photographed in La Jolla, California. Photo by Y S on Unsplash

Endangered Species

DDT completely infiltrates the environment and food chain. “When it rained, DDT would wash off the soil and into the waterways. There, aquatic plants absorbed it and animals ingested it. Fish ate the plants and animals, and then eagles ate the fish.”17 It works its way up the food chain.

A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest in a tree at Bonita Bay, Florida
A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest at Bonita Bay, Florida, February 16, 2021. Photo by J Dean on Unsplash

DDT in Our Environment Today

DDT doesn’t go away. Past contaminations of waterways still linger, and it still affects many species, including ourselves. There are hundreds of cases related to DDT’s continued effects on humans and wildlife. Following are just a few of them.

Arizona

The sign from Maricopa County, Arizona (see below) is a good example. Fish and aquatic wildlife are dangerous to eat because of DDT contamination. Additionally, residues from the chemical have made their way into the milk people drink. “DDE routinely shows up in trace amounts in Arizona’s milk supply, transferred to cows through hay grown in contaminated soil,” according to a 2005 article in the Phoenix New Times.

In 1958 alone, 500,000 pounds of DDT were applied to farmland in that area to fight the cotton bollworm. By the 1970s, the Gila [River] was the most DDT-contaminated stream in the western United States. In the 1980s, federal wildlife officials found that DDE residues in birds collected in the Goodyear-Avondale area were among the highest in the nation.” The state began posting signs like the one below in the 1990s.

Don't Eat the fish, crayfish, turtles or frogs Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ
“Don’t Eat the Frogs, Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ.” Photo by Warren Lauzon on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Michigan

In St. Louis, Michigan, a Superfund site is still the likely culprit for dying birds. The Velsicol Chemical Corporation, formerly Michigan Chemical, manufactured pesticides until 1963. The EPA took control of the site in 1982 and the plant was demolished in the mid-1990s, but it left behind 3 Superfund sites in the small 3.5-square mile town. “Of most concern is the 54-acre site that once contained Velsicol’s main plant, which backs up to the neighborhood where residents have found dead birds on their lawns.”

Velsicol Chemical is infamous for a major chemical disaster in 1973, involving polybrominated biphenyls, or PBBs, a flame retardant compound it manufactured. The company accidentally mixed PBBs with a cattle feed supplement, poisoning thousands of cattle. This led to widespread contamination in Michigan.

There are still studies to monitor the effects of PBBs in the community. But not DDT, even though people find dead birds all the time. “The birds apparently have been poisoned by eating worms living in contaminated soil near the old chemical plant. No studies have been conducted to see whether the DDT has contaminated any vegetables or fruits grown in yards.” Beginning in 2006, the EPA began cleaning up homeowner’s yards to remove DDT and PBBs. But Velsicol was right on the Pine River, and its sediment was also contaminated with DDT and PBBs. “Traces of a chemical that is a byproduct of DDT manufacturing, pCBSA, have been found in the city’s water system, so new water mains will tap into a nearby town’s water supply.”

Aerial Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.
Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.

DDT Affects Grandchildren

Scientific American published an article in 2021 about the findings of Barbara Cohn, an epidemiologist at Oakland’s Public Health Institute, who studies the long-term effects of DDT. In a past study, she “found that the daughters of mothers exposed to the highest DDT levels while pregnant had elevated rates of breast cancer, hypertension and obesity.” But her newest study focused on the exposed women’s grandchildren and showed that the effects of DDT can persist for at least three generations. “The study linked grandmothers’ higher DDT exposure rates to granddaughters’ higher body mass index (BMI) and earlier first menstruation, both of which can signal future health issues.”23 Given that DDT is a persistent chemical, this makes sense. But humans used it all over the world for decades. How many people had or have long-term illnesses or poor health effects from it?

DDT around the World

Some areas of the world still use DDT today to control mosquitos that transmit the microbe that causes malaria, a disease that kills millions of people. The EPA has been participating in international negotiations to control the use of DDT and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used around the world since 1996. Through the United Nations Environment Programme many countries negotiated a treaty, known as the Stockholm Convention on POPs, in order to enact global bans and/or restrictions on POPs, including DDT.24

The Convention allows an exemption for the control of the spread of malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) also supports the indoor use of DDT in African countries where malaria remains a major health problem. They believe that the benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks of DDT.25

“While it’s illegal to use DDT in this country, it’s perfectly legal to manufacture and export it. Eventually, it finds its way back to us in foods grown abroad that have been treated with the chemical. So in addition to endangering animals around the world, we’re also poisoning ourselves.” -Jeff Corwin

Knowledge is Key

We have to protect ourselves from these chemicals. But it’s not as simple as staying away from contaminated areas, assuming you even know where they are and have the means to live elsewhere (not everyone does). Knowing the facts about DDT and other persistent chemicals is important. We have to fight for remediation and cleanups while protecting our health, children’s health, wildlife, and our own habitats. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “L.A.’s coast was once a DDT dumping ground: No one could see it – until now,” The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2020.

Article, “Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected,” The Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2021.

Announcement, “Montrose Chemical Corp. Agrees to $77M in Consent Decrees in 31-Year Lawsuit Over DDT Pollution,” The Recorder, Law.com, October 04, 2021.

Press Release, “EPA Reaches $56.6 million Settlement for Groundwater Cleanup at Los Angeles Area Superfund Sites,” Environmental Protection Agency, August 14, 2020.

Parody, “The Desolate Year,” Monsanto Magazine, October 1962, accessed January 3, 2022.

Article, “Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer,” The New York Times, April 15, 1964.

Article, “Signs Warn Shore Anglers of Contaminated Fish,” Patch.com, June 3, 2011.

Footnotes:

Recycling is NOT The Answer

Recycling, separated into paper bags and blue bins
Image by GreenStar from Pixabay

I used to be an avid believer in recycling. When I was 11, my family began collecting and taking our recycling to the local center. Soon after, the county we lived in passed a recycling ordinance. I was hooked. I even wrote a paper in 9th grade about landfills and recycling, citing a study about mining landfills for recycling and resources that I’d found inspiring.1

Since then I’ve dutifully washed, separated, and toted my recycling, no matter where I’ve resided. If there was no recycling service, I tracked down the recycling centers. At parties or on vacations where recycling wasn’t available, I carted my recyclables all the way home so that I could recycle them. I have spent a great deal of time over my life teaching and educating others on the how’s and why’s of recycling.

Imagine my disappointment just a few years ago when I discovered that only 9% of plastics are recycled.

“Recycling is great, but unfortunately it is not enough. There’s simply too much recycling to process, and we’re still consuming way too many resources.” -Kathryn Kellogg, 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste

Steel and aluminum recycling bales, compacted and very colorful.
Compacted steel and aluminum recycling bales. Photo by Steven Penton on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Notion of Recycling is Misleading

The reason that recycling is NOT the sole solution to our waste problem is the misconception that it IS the sole solution to our waste problem.

Many well-meaning people toss their once-used plastic bottle or container into a blue bin somewhere and think that they’ve done their part. But most do not know the real impact of what they are doing. This is because we’ve been fed the myth of recycling for decades. Plastic manufacturers carefully curated the message that we can use all of the plastic we want to because we can just recycle it. That’s a very convenient notion but not at all how it works.

Recycling actually increases consumption, because it gives consumers a false sense of taking care of the environment and doing the right thing. The fact that we think we can recycle something often drives our purchases. It is acceptable to us to buy single-serve plastic yogurt cups and plastic single drink bottles because we can justify the waste those things create with recycling. We pass these notions on to our children as well.

Additionally, companies push these falsehoods through marketing. They want us to think their products are recyclable or sustainable in some way, in order to drive up sales. Some will go as far as ‘greenwashing‘ their products.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of Society of the Plastics Industry2

Bales of contaminated platic bottles on a pallet.
Photo by recycleharmony on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recycling Myths

There are many recycling myths! Here are just a few of them.

An Endless Loop

First, recycling is not a clean, closed, endless loop where everything that goes in is remade and reused. Materials, especially plastics, degrade in quality. Many plastics are not recycled at all. Since plastics are polymers mixed with chemical additives, plastic products are typically downcycled. Downcycling means made into a lower-quality plastic. Therefore, new plastic from petroleum is often preferred by manufacturers in order to keep making equivalent-quality plastic products. Further, new plastic is often cheaper than recycled. “The current cost of virgin plastic nurdles is much cheaper than the cost of recycled plastic nurdles, so it doesn’t make economic sense to purchase recycled plastic – and much of our carefully sorted plastic ends up stuck in a landfill, incinerated, or shipped abroad.”3

So a plastic water bottle is not remade into another plastic water bottle. It may be downcycled into carpeting or synthetic fabric. After an item outlives its use as a lesser type of plastic container, carpet, or plastic lumber, it is still landfilled. So while technically recycled (downcycled) one time, it is not an endless loop of the same materials being used over and over again.

Recycled content

Further on the myth of reusing materials, have you ever noticed on something you purchased has a label that reads “made from 45% post-consumer” waste/content/plastics? This simply means that 45% of the product or packaging is made from recycled materials. While 100% post-consumer exists, most often, virgin materials must be mixed in with recycled materials to maintain a product’s durability. This is especially true with plastics, paper, and cardboard.

Recycling diverts waste from landfills

Another myth is that recycling automatically diverts waste from landfills. This is just not true. Many recyclables end up in landfills if recycling is contaminated. Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables or may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like plastic bags, which are not recyclable. Plastic bags can get tangled in the machinery, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables. If recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled (or even incinerated) rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

If it is collected, then it is recycled

Just because you put it in a blue bin that “accepts” something does not automatically mean those materials are recycled.

Plastics #3-#7 are often collected in municipalities across the country but they are sent to landfills or are incinerated. Some still export their mixed plastics to other countries. But collecting mixed plastics through single-stream recycling is a big part of the problem. “Acceptance of such a plastic item at a [Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)] alone is not sufficient and reasonable assurance to a customer that it will be manufactured into another item, as required by the FTC…Companies cannot legitimately place recycle symbols or “Check Locally” text on products made from plastics #3-7 because MRFs nationwide cannot assure consumers that valueless plastics #3-7 bales will actually be bought and recycled into a new product.”4

“Acceptance by a [Materials Recovery Facility] is Not Proof of Recycling.”5

Bird's eye view of paper bales at a recycling center.
Aerial view of paper bales at a recycling center. Image by WFranz from Pixabay.

Volume

The amount of waste and “recycling” humans create is ridiculous, and most people really don’t have any idea about the total volume. Waste and recycling go into a bin and we don’t think about it again. This further creates misconceptions surrounding recycling simply because we don’t understand the volumes of waste we create. If you combined the waste from just you and your neighbors, how much waste is that? Now imagine the amount from your entire neighborhood, city, state, and then nation.

The EPA estimates that of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka trash) generated in the U.S., approximately 69 million tons were recycled.6

Of this, 35,680,000 tons were plastic. Thus, an 800-pound bale of PET would be roughly 18,400 of the 16-ounce PET Bottles.7 Other estimates vary slightly, depending on the size and actual weight of each individual plastic bottle. Now I am not a mathematician. But if all plastics from the 35 million tons were plastic PET bottles, and one ton weighs 2,000 pounds, that would mean there are about 46,000 plastic bottles per ton. Then multiply 35,680,000 by 46,000, and that equals 1,641,280,000,000 individual plastic bottles. And that’s just plastics from one year!

A woman at the foot of a hill of plastic bottles, sorting recycling in Pakistan.
A woman scavenges for survival in a mountain of plastic waste, Pakistan. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recycling is Important

Extracting natural resources is terrible for the environment, human health, wildlife, and directly affects climate change. Preventing the extraction of virgin materials is important, especially when it comes to fossil fuels. Both extracting and burning fossil fuels greatly contribute to global warming.

“Recycling consistently requires less resources and produces fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than production of new materials,” wrote Beth Porter.8 For example, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than extraction. Almost 75% of all aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use. Paper has a recycling rate of approximately 68.2% (in 2018), the highest compared to other materials in municipal solid waste.9

Plastic recycling bales, colored and white/clear items.
Bales of plastic ready for shipping. Photo by Larry Koester on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Plastics Market

Plastic production is complex and chemical. Worse, “most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking. Ethane cracker facilities turn ethane into ethylene, a building block of most common plastics.” We know that the oil industry, gas processing facilities, and ethane crackers are all associated with climate change and environmental problems.10 “The massive expansion of plastic production in the U.S., fueled by at least $200 billion of investment in 340 petrochemical projects, is flooding the market and causing polyethylene [recycling] prices to decline to historic lows – below prices last seen during the 2008 financial crisis.”11

Since there is little market for recycled plastics, it exacerbates the waste crisis. Recycled plastic must be given some kind of economic value so that collecting it for recycling has a financial incentive.12

“The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic — and too many different types of plastics — being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.”13

Stacked bales of recycling from a distance, inside the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, Connecticut.
Bales of recycling at the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, Connecticut. Photo by CT Senate Republicans on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What Can You do?

PLEASE RECYCLE! This post is not intended to discourage you from recycling.

But recycling is not the answer to our waste crisis.

We must restructure the way we think about trash. We must change our goals surrounding waste. The goals should focus on refusing, reducing, and reusing long before recycling enters the picture – in that order! If you read my article on how recycling works, you’ll recall that recycling processes are very complex and recycling is easily contaminated.

It is also imperative that we move away from single-use disposables. That alone could help improve pollution, reduce ocean microplastics, and help climate change. Thank you for reading, please share this article and subscribe for future articles!

 

Footnotes:

What They Learned From Keiko, the Star of Free Willy

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, viewed from underwater.
Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.

So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.

Free Willy movie cover

Keiko’s Capture & Sale

“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1

Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, Marineland Ontario purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.

Marineland sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3

Black and white newspaper photo of a trainer standing on top of Keiko and Kiska at Marineland in the early 1980s.
A trainer standing on Keiko and Kiska at Marineland Ontario in the early 1980s. Credit: Photos provided by HaH, from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).
Photo of the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura.
This is the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura. Keiko could hardly swim in this dolphin pool. Photo by Rodrigo SanSs on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A Film Project

When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.

But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5 

The Impact of Free Willy

Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.

At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6 

“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation

In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.

The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9

“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10

Relocating An Orca, Twice

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11

Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12 But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.

In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:

“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13

Freeing Willy

Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14

Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:

“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”

But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

What They Learned From Keiko

Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.

Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.

“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by “Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.,” Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Keiko’s Importance

Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.

In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at Marineland Ontario, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.

“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18

 

Additional Resources:

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverFilm, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.

 

 

 

 

Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.

Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.

Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.

Footnotes:

Update on Lolita/Tokitae

Image of Lolita/Tokitae jumping out of the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

This is an update to my article about Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium, which is in one of the saddest captive orca situations. This orca is the star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium and so the facility has a vested interest in keeping her onsite. She has been the lone orca for over 50 years, living in a tank so small it violates federal regulations. Now poor inspections and revelations about neglect in her care have made new headlines.

“It is Lolita, more than any other captive orca, who offers the potential to answer the big question that hovered around the Blackfish debate: Why not return wild-born orcas to their native waters and pods?” – David Neiwert1

Veterinarian Ignored

In June 2021, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection of the Miami Seaquarium found that it was providing low-quality animal care. The 17-page report outlined many problems and health risks to Lolita/Tokitae. The report noted that veterinary recommendations from the park’s own veterinary team were repeatedly ignored: “The facility’s attending veterinarian’s recommendations regarding the provision of adequate veterinary care and other aspects of animal care and use have been repeatedly disregarded or dismissed over the last year…Failure to allow appropriate veterinary authority poses a risk to the health and welfare of the animals.”2 The primary veterinarian who made the ignored recommendations was fired in the same month as the USDA inspection.

One of the problems included that Lolita/Tokitae and other marine mammals were fed rotten fish for 8 days, even though the veterinarian and others objected. The orca developed inflammation in her bloodwork within a week. The marine amusement park had also cut her daily food allowance down significantly. Since orcas rely on fish not just for food but also for their water intake, Lolita/Tokitae could become severely dehydrated.

Other veterinary recommendations the park ignored included those about performance at her age, her diet, and even injuries. “After Lolita had injured her lower jaw, [the veterinarian] specifically directed the staff not to request head-in entry jumps or fast swims from Lolita, now a geriatric whale. Yet, regardless of this directive, according to the report, the training manager incorporated extra head-in jumps to its routine and continued fast swims.”3 

Worse, the report detailed many other issues. These included “critical” issues with the pools and enclosures for dolphins and seals, poor water quality, and inadequate shade for the animals (which causes skin and eye lesions). Dolphins had been injured and some had even died because incompatible animals were housed together.

“She injured her jaw because they were making her do things that she was just too old to do. And the vet told them not to make her do them anymore. And they ignored the vet.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose4

Lolita jumping out of the water in front of an audience at the Miami Seaquarium with her trainer behind her on the work platform.
Photo by Freebird on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Response from the Scientific Community

Many marine biologists, animal rights activists, and empathetic people, in general, find this report offensive. The poor USDA report elicited this response from Dr. Naomi A. Rose:

“What this outrageous report all boils down to is, the infractions were or will be corrected, at least long enough to pass muster at some follow-up inspection. And therefore it is dismayingly likely that, aside from a citation (which carries no fine), nothing will happen to [Miami Seaquarium]. They will suffer no penalty, they get to keep their APHIS license, no animals will be confiscated. And NOTHING WILL CHANGE. They are likely to be cited again in the future for similar infractions, because they know they will suffer no real consequences for cutting corners and being lax…It is now very clear that the law will NEVER protect Toki[tae]. I don’t know what will work, after all these years of so many people trying to help her, but at the very least, we need to spread the word of what has happened at [Miami Seaquarium]. Based on this inspection report alone, [Miami Seaquarium] is failing abysmally in its duty of care for this amazing being.5

Park Sold Off to Another Company

Within two months of the poor inspection, Palace Entertainment, the current owner, sold the aquarium to the Dolphin Company. The timing is questionable. The Dolphin Company operates 32 parks and dolphin habitats in 8 countries including the United States, Italy, Mexico, and Argentina. They operate under different brands, including Dolphin Discovery, Dolphin Cove, Zoomarine, and Marineland (but not Marineland Ontario).

Both companies expect the final transitions to take place by the end of the year. The new company has promised to make improvements to the facilities and to allow authorities to make unannounced inspections. The director of Zoo Miami evaluated the Dolphin Company’s plans, including one specifically for Lolita’s care, and encouraged the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners to sign off on the deal.6

New Promises

The County Commission unanimously approved the transfer of ownership, as long as they “address” the issues in the USDA report. The Miami-Dade County Mayor proposed changes to the lease, which included requiring “compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, the maintenance of certifications by recognized organizations as the American Humane Association, and a commitment to seeking an accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.” The county will increase oversight of the Seaquarium and “will aggressively monitor the health and well-being of these animals under the leadership of The Dolphin Company,” the mayor said.7

Miami Seaquarium
Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Skepticism

Not everyone believes that the Dolphin Company will fulfill its proposals. Ric O’Barry, the founder of The Dolphin Project, wrote: “Miami Seaquarium, the facility holding Lolita (Tokitae) the long-term captive orca, is being sold to Mexico’s The Dolphin Company (aka: The Dolphin Abusement Company) for an undisclosed amount…The company has no plans to make major changes to the park and will continue to use Lolita as [the] main attraction.”8

Miami Seaquarium protester Thomas Copeland is also skeptical. He doubts that the new owner will be able to make significant improvements to Lolita/Tokiate’s situation, simply because her tank is too small. He said, “At its deepest point on that angle, it’s 20-feet deep…she’s 22 feet long. The simple math tells you that the animal is too big for this tank.”9 Unless the Dolphin Company plans to expand the entire whale tank, Lolita/Tokitae will continue to live in too small of a space. However, the Miami Seaquarium has not been able to expand, as the Village of Key Biscayne has denied previous requests for permission to expand. There is very little land in this area and the town tries to control business expansion and control traffic problems.10

Lolita/Tokitae floating in the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

The Lummi Nation

As with many captive orcas, Lolita/Tokitae cannot just be released into the ocean because she’s lived in captivity for so long. She may not be able to hunt fish or merge into her old pod seamlessly. So the Lummi Nation, the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, is working with several organizations to safely relocate her back to her home waters under their care. The Lummi Nation views the orca as a relative and a member of their tribe. “They believe their treaty rights were violated when she was taken from her family in Puget Sound” in 1970. Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris of the Lummi Nation said, “Under our inherent rights, she’s a relative. We have a right to call her home.” The Lummi Nation call Lolita/Tokitae Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, which means “nice day, pretty colors.”11

“She’s done. Her spirit is crying to come home. Let her go. Let her come home.” -Squil-Le-He-Le Raynell Morris, Lummi Nation12

Taking Lolita/Tokitae Home

The goal is to return Lolita/Tokitae to the Salish Sea where she was born. It is where her family, the L pod of the Southern Resident orcas, still reside. With guidance from marine biologists and other experts at the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Lummi Nation will provide her care while she lives out her life in a custom-built sea pen, in her natural environment. “As part of our Whale Aid work, the Whale Sanctuary Project has drafted a comprehensive operational plan to safely bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to a secure and protected area within the Salish Sea where she can thrive in her natal waters while receiving ongoing human care and while prioritizing the wellbeing of the Salish Sea ecosystem and all its inhabitants, including the Southern Resident orcas.”13

The plan is comprehensive and supported by the Whale Sanctuary Project, the Orca Network,14 the Earth Law Center,15 and Sacred Sea.16 There are many who argue against her release, but there are even more who argue for her retirement and relinquishment from the Miami Seaquarium.

"50 years of stolen freedom. Retire Lolita." Aerial photo of the Miami Seaquarium's orca tank with public seating surrounding it.
Courtesy of Empty The Tanks. #50YearsOfStolenFreedom #Retire Lolita

Refusal to Relinquish Lolita/Tokitae

“I don’t want these hippies stealing my whale.” -Arthur Hertz former owner of the Miami Seaquarium, referring to animal rights activists in 199617

The main obstacle to this project is the Miami Seaquarium’s refusal to do what is best for the orca. They have repeatedly refused to relinquish Lolita/Tokitae. They argue that she is better off in its care despite well-documented evidence and eyewitness reports of neglect. In 2015, they said: “Moving Lolita in any way, whether to a new pool, a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be an experiment. And it is a risk with her life that we are not willing to take. There is no scientific evidence that the 48-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she was returned to the ocean.” They refused to discuss all proposals of her sale or transfer to another park or aquarium, despite that her tank is way too small.18

In 2019, the Miami Seaquarium’s general manager wrote to the Seattle Times that the company had no interest in relinquishing her to another aquarium, marine amusement park, or sanctuary.19 Further, they have argued that she would not survive the long journey to the Pacific Northwest.

Close up of Lolita/Tokitae's face popping out of the water at the Miami Seaquarium.
Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Photo by @cetabaker on Instagram, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/lolitas-gallery/).

What’s Next?

Most have speculated that The Dolphin Company will keep Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. An activist told The Palm Beach Post that she emailed The Dolphin Company about Lolita/Tokitae’s release. They responded that they were not yet in charge of Seaquarium operations but that it would soon ‘explore the best options for Lolita’ in the near future. While the activist found hope in their response, I find this response to be the wording of typical corporate avoidance speak. Further, the company did not respond to emails from The Palm Beach Post about Lolita’s future.20 So we’ll see what they do. Meanwhile, activists are still protesting.

Lolita/Tokitae is not performing right now, because allegedly, the Miami Seaquarium’s whale stadium is temporarily closed for repairs.21 Hopefully she is being fed the right amounts of fish, receiving veterinary care, and swimming in clean water. If you want to advocate for this orca, please sign any of the pledges/petitions I’ve listed under Additional Resources below. Stay updated on news related to her situation. Share her story. Most importantly, don’t buy tickets to marine amusement parks! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Lolita: Fame and Misfortune,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed November 21, 2021.

Page, “Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut: also known as Tokitae or Lolita,” sacredsea.org.

Book, A Puget Sound Orca in Captivity: The Fight To Bring Lolita Home, by Sandra Pollard, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2019.

Article, “Dark waters, dark secret: Untold story of failed bid to free South Florida orca Lolita,” The Palm Beach Post, October 13, 2021.

Film, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.

Pledge, “FREE LOLITA: Urge The Dolphin Company to Retire Lolita to a Seaside Sanctuary,” PETA.org.

Petition, “Lummi elders: “Free our Relative!” Save endangered orca held captive at Miami Seaquarium,” Change.org.

Petition, “Take the Pledge NOT to Buy a Ticket To a Dolphin Show,” The Dolphin Project.

Website, savelolita.org.

Footnotes: