The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Hugo and Lolita

Last updated on August 20, 2022.

Hugo and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium in the early 1970s.
Hugo and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium in the early 1970s. Photo by my mother

In my last article, I explained a few of the issues with keeping orcas in captivity. Today I want to share the sad stories of two orcas held for decades at the Miami Seaquarium.

“It’s inherently hypocritical to keep a large-brained, gregarious, sonic animal in a concrete box. It needs to end.-Ric O’Barry1

Postcard, Hugo, the Killer Whale, performing at Miami Seaquarium, circa 1968. From Florida Memory of the State Library and Archives of Florida, public domain.[efn_note]Postcard, Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida, accessed January 29, 2021.[/efn_note]

Hugo, Miami Seaquarium

In 1968, whale herders captured Hugo at approximately age 3 near Puget Sound, Washington. The Miami Seaquarium purchased him but did not have an orca tank. He lived in an even smaller tank, the present-day manatee tank, for the first 2 years.

Small Tank

Ric O’Barry, founder of the Dolphin Project, worked at the Miami Seaquairum when they purchased Hugo. O’Barry objected to the tank’s tiny size. “When [Seaquarium manager Burton Clark] showed me Hugo, I shook my head in disbelief…’He’s longer than the tank is deep,'” he said. Hugo was thirteen feet long and the tank was only 12 feet deep. “He’s just a baby. He’ll grow twice this big. Leave him in here, Mr. Clark, and you’ll have the Humane Society down on your ears.” Clark said they were building a new tank and showed O’Barry the site. “I looked at it in dismay. ‘This is it?'”2 The current tank was completed in 1970. It is the one the park still uses today and is the smallest orca tank in use in the world.

Clark asked O’Barry to take care of Hugo and ‘keep him happy’ while the new tank was under construction. So O’Barry became Hugo’s caretaker, and though he was warned that killer whales were dangerous, O’Barry found that Hugo was a sensitive, intelligent creature and wasn’t scared of him. “‘Hugo!’ I said with a grin. ‘You’re nothing but a big, wonderful dolphin!” Hugo and O’Barry came to trust each other. “He allowed me to ride on his great back and, to amuse the tourists, I rode around on his back playing flute and guitar. Hugo loved music.”3

But O’Barry, wanting to protect Hugo and learn about orcas, struggled with the situation. “Hugo was eating 100 pounds of fish a day, and the bigger he got, the smaller his little whale bowl seemed. Nobody was more conscious of this than I, but every tourist who came through, thousands of them every day, pointed it out to me as if it were a great discovery.” The new tank construction had constant delays and slow progress. Even once completed, you can see how small it is since they haven’t expanded it. He was questioned by tourists about Hugo’s situation, and O’Barry in turn questioned his supervisors about it. But they were dismissive and nothing changed. “I left, this time for good,” O’Barry wrote about leaving the Miami Seaquarium.

“The [Miami] Seaquarium had sought to capitalize on Hugo by splashing an artist’s conception of him on billboards along the highway leading south: Hugo the killer whale thrashing through the frothy water, with an angry countenance and huge, bloody teeth.” – Ric O’Barry4

Hugo Suffered in Captivity

Hugo repeatedly injured himself while in captivity. At one point he severed the tip of his rostrum and a veterinarian had to sew it back on. According to a newspaper article at the time of the incident, “His powerful drive shattered the acrylic plastic bubble, and knocked a five-inch hole in it. And a piece of jagged plastic severed Hugo’s nose.”5 The same article speculated that an incident like this might happen again. And it did. Hugo rammed his head into the tank multiple times throughout his twelve years in captivity.

In 1980, Hugo died from a cerebral aneurysm, likely from the trauma he suffered from his self-mutilating behavior.6 Many refer to Hugo’s death as a suicide. The Miami Seaquarium lifted his body from the tank and put it in the Miami-Dade landfill.7 They did not memorialize his life or death in any way, “it was as if he had never existed.”8 Even today, this is the only mention of him on their website: “Miami Seaquarium welcomes the arrival of Hugo, it’s First Killer Whale to the park. The whale is named after Hugo Vihlen, the man who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a six-foot sailboat.”9 

Hugo and Lolita performing at the Miami Seaquarium around April of 1977.
Hugo and Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium around April of 1977. Photo found and digitized by Thomas Hawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Lolita, Miami Seaquarium

While Hugo’s story is sad, Lolita’s story is even more sorrowful. She is a 7,000-pound orca and is 22 feet long but lives in the smallest and shallowest tank of any orca in North America. The tank is 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. She can’t dive because she is as long as the tank is deep. For comparison, an Olympic-sized swimming pool is 164 feet in length and 82 feet wide. The tank violates the law, as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), operating under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), requires a minimum of 48 feet wide in either direction with a straight line of travel across the middle. But they do not have the authority to require an expansion. Worse, the local jurisdiction opposes the expansion of the Seaquarium on the small island. Drone footage shows just how small the pool she lives in is compared to her body:

“The orca Lolita’s tank at the Miami Seaquarium may be the smallest for this species in the world—she is longer than half the width of the main tank.”

But the size of her tank isn’t even the worst part.

Lolita lives alone.

Recall that orcas are highly social animals that usually live together for life in multigenerational family groups. Since Hugo’s death in 1980, she’s lived alone. Sometimes two or three Pacific white-sided dolphins live with her, but reports show that they rake and harass her.11 Can you imagine living alone except for two other species that only sometimes interacted with you?

After Hugo’s death, the Miami Seaquarium required Lolita to continue performing without her companion. In fact, they had her doing her regular performances the very next day. Her former trainer told a reporter at the time: “We expected problems when Hugo died, but Lolita performed as usual the next day…Once in a while she would look for him, but she got over it.”12 We now know that orcas grieve as humans do, so it is difficult to understand this today.

Lolita has always struggled in captivity. A former Seaquarium employee recalled Lolita’s early days at the Miami Seaquarium: “The skin on her back cracked and bled from the sun and wind exposure,” she said.  “She wouldn’t eat the diet of frozen herring. … At night, she cried.”13 Today, she often floats very still and appears despondent. She cannot get enough physical activity, hasn’t seen another orca in over 40 years, and likely suffers emotionally. 

“Even the Seaquariums’ public-relations director admits that the show won’t tell kids where Lolita comes from, what life for orcas is like in the wild, what threats face her native L pod…But then, these are the kinds of facts that prompt children to ask uncomfortable questions like, ‘Why isn’t Lolita with her family, Mommy?'”14

Orca at Miami Seaquarium
Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, image by Marita Rickman from Pixabay

Capture & Relation to Hugo

In August 1970, four-year-old Lolita (originally named Tokitae) was one of six juvenile orcas captured from the waters off Washington state. “By 1987, Lolita was the only survivor out of an estimated fifty-eight killer whales taken captive from Puget Sound or killed during captures.”15 The captures were often violent and whale herders used speedboats, an airplane, and explosives in the water to herd the orcas into a small area. “The juvenile orcas were separated from their mothers, as the infants were prime candidates to be sold to aquariums, while the adult orcas were released and free to leave.  However, the adult pod would not leave their offspring and refused to swim free, vocalizing human-like cries, until the last baby was pulled out of the water, never to return again.”16 Another account described it this way: During those weeks between capture and transport, the adult orcas never left the abduction site, and the sound of their grief-filled keening rang through the cove.”17 One adult and four young orcas were killed during Lolita’s capture.

Though caught in separate years, it turns out that Hugo and Lolita were related. “Unbeknownst to the staff and owner of Miami Seaquarium, Hugo and Lolita both were captured from the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, and shared similar dialects with one another, allowing them to communicate.”18 So while this was an accidental good pairing for companionship, Hugo and Lolita only had each other and mated. Lolita was pregnant several times but did not birth any live babies. She may have miscarried due to inbreeding. This does not seem to happen in wild orca populations.

“For the Seaquarium, Lolita represents a star money-making attraction, a 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.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project19

Trainer "surfing" an orca at the Miami Seaquarium in the 1970s
Trainer “surfing” an orca, either Hugo or Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium in the early 1970s. Photo by my mother

Time for Lolita’s Retirement

There are many organizations working on Lolita’s behalf to free her, including the Orca Network, the Center for Whale Research, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, the Empty The Tanks organization, the Salish Sea Marine Sanctuary organization, and The Whale Sanctuary Project. Ken Balcomb, marine biologist and founder of the Center for Whale Research, even offered to purchase her outright from the Miami Seaquarium in 1992. He had a plan to retire her to a sea pen in San Juan Island, Washington.20 But they refused to even discuss the sale of Lolita with Ken Balcomb’s group.

These movements began in the 1990s and have escalated since Southern Resident orcas were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2005. These organizations have had multiple campaigns, detailed retirement plans, lawsuits, and appeals filed on Lolita’s behalf. The best thing for this orca is to allow her to retire to an ocean sanctuary.

View showing an animal trainer performing with an Orca whale at the Miami Seaquarium attraction.
Florida. – Division of Tourism. View showing an animal trainer performing with an Orca whale at the Miami Seaquarium attraction. 20th century. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/93509>, accessed 6 May 2021.

But the Miami Seaquarium has no such plans. In 2019, their general manager, Eric Eimstad, wrote to The Seattle Times: “There is no room for debate on what is best for Lolita … For almost 5 decades we have provided and cared for Lolita, and we will not allow her life to be treated as an experiment. We will not jeopardize her health by considering any move from her home here in Miami.”21 The argument against her retirement is that she will not survive in the wild.

However, biologists would not drop Lolita in the ocean and leave her to fend for herself. They would move her to a sanctuary where she could learn to swim great lengths and depths again, catch food, and socialize. They would monitor her and provide veterinary care. The hope would be that she could go back to the open ocean someday. Her pod, known as the L pod, is still active and in fact, orca biologists have even figured out who her motherly most likely is – L25 – and she’s still alive! Named Ocean Sun, she’s approximately age 90 now, and L25’s pod still lives in the same area of Lolita’s capture. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could reunite them someday?

Retire Lolita campaign poster
#50YearsOfStolenFreedom #Retire Lolita

“When I heard the Lolita story, I imagined how amazing it’d be to bring her back to her mother decades after her capture…This singlular, feasible event could catapult us into such a dignified direction. We owe this species big time. And we could start with her.” -Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish director22

Hurricane Irma

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, when the storm was on track for Miami, the Seaquarium did not evacuate her – they left her there! That storm turned and went to Tampa instead, but she would have likely died if Irma had hit Miami directly. As Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer, noted, “In the context of the original storm forecast, which predicted a CAT 4 or 5 direct strike on Miami, the Seaquarium’s decision to roll the dice with her life is certainly callous, immoral, and unjust.”23

The City of Miami declared that anyone who abandoned their pets during the storm could be charged with animal cruelty. But this did not include the Miami Seaquarium, and Lolita could have been injured or killed. “The threats to exposed captive killer whales include missile injuries, blunt force trauma, stress, and foreign objects in the pool, which can be swallowed. In nature the whales can ride out storms, spending their time predominantly below the surface and at greater depths,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ventre. Another former SeaWorld trainer and advocate of orcas, Samantha Berg, pointed out that Lolita’s “tank is not deep enough for her to submerge and find refuge from flying debris.”24 Further, debris can be toxic to the orca. And if caretakers evacuate, Lolita doesn’t have anyone to feed her.

According to the Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity, facilities frequently do not evacuate animals in advance of storms. So is this a larger problem that we should not ignore? It is not unreasonable to believe that any zoo, aquarium, or park that is responsible for other beings should protect them at all costs.

“If [the Seaquarium] has no plan or protocol during a storm other than leaving her behind, then Lolita shouldn’t live there,” O’Barry says. “It’s a death sentence.” -Ric O’Barry27

Why is Lolita still living in captivity?

Many people consider Lolita to be the prime candidate for removal from captivity. After Hurricane Irma, the Miami Beach City Commission “voted unanimously on a resolution urging the Seaquarium to release her. The proposal is only symbolic because the Seaquarium is located on Virginia Key, not under the jurisdiction of Miami Beach. But Miami Beach officials are asking the park to retire Lolita into the care of the Orca Network, a nonprofit based in Freeland, Washington, which has had plans for how to retire the creature since 1995.” The Seaquarium argued against the vote and insisted Lolita was safer at the marine park than she would have been in a sea enclosure.28

Miami Seaquarium
Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

“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 Neiwert29

As mentioned above, there are many organizations advocating for Lolita’s release. Several organizations propose moving her to a sea pen with human care since she likely cannot live without human care at this point. There’s also the Whale Sanctuary Project which is currently building an ocean sanctuary for former captive whales. I’ve listed links to all of these below if you want to learn more or support these projects. Please see my Update on Lolita/Tokitae article.

The best thing you can do, though, is to not visit marine theme parks that hold captive whales or other marine mammals that require the animals to perform for entertainment. I’ve only shared two stories about captive orcas in this post, and I’ll share a few others in my next post. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Lolita slave to entertainment film cover art

Film, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

Website, Lolita, The Orca Network, accessed February 4, 2021.

Website, The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed February 4, 2021.

Film, A Day in the Life of Lolita, the Performing Orca:

Website, Action for Lolita, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 4, 2021.

Book, “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us,” by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.

Article, “Photo Illustrates the Lesson We Should Have Learned About Orca Captivity in the 1980s,” One Green Planet, accessed February 4, 2021.

Website, Action for Lolita, Empty The Tanks, accessed February 4, 2021.

Article, “What Happens to Them Happens to Us,” Hakai Magazine, May 12, 2020.

Website, Save Lolita Organization, accessed February 4, 2021.

Film, “Window of the Living Sea,” Florida Memory State Library and Archives of Florida, 1970. Original film from the Miami Seaquarium, features Hugo and Lolita together in brief sections.

Footnotes:

With Extinction on the Rise, Joel Sartore works to fill his Photo Ark

Last updated on November 13, 2021.

Photo of a rhinoceros. Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

When I first wrote this article, I’d already written about how the Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2019. A report from the United Nations report indicated that up to a million species may be threatened with extinction.1 One million!

“We are on the brink of a global extinction crisis. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities.”2

But despite the depressing news, I wanted to share something that truly inspired me.

National Geographic October 2019 cover of a dying rhinoceros
Cover of National Geographic October 2019, available for purchase at bookstores and online.

We’re Losing Species at an Alarming Rate

This cover of National Geographic caught my eye and I checked it out from the library. It features a keeper at a conservancy in Kenya saying goodbye to the last male northern white rhinoceros. Yes, you read that correctly – the last male. There are two females left. In the whole world.3

How did it come to this? Mostly from human activity such as poaching, pollution, habitat destruction for land and logging, pesticides, and climate change. The rhinoceros is a keystone species with a 50 million-year-old lineage, and in just the last 100 years we have brought it to near extinction. The author of the article wrote that “Watching a creature die—one who is the last of its kind—is something I hope never to experience again. It felt like watching our own demise.”4

Photo of a newborn sea turtle. Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash
Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash

“When we see ourselves as part of nature, we understand that saving nature is really about saving ourselves.” -Ami Vitale, National Geographic5

Joel Sartore & The Photo Ark

The same issue of National Geographic featured an article about Joel Sartore, a photographer who has worked for the magazine for 25 years. The Photo Ark6 is “an effort to document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries,” and Sartore has photographed nearly 11,000 species. The goal is 20,000.7

His ultimate goal is “to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time.” His work is beautiful and stunning and astonishing.8 The editor of National Geographic asked Sartore, “What do you want people to know about the state of life on Earth?” He responded, “A recent intergovernmental report says that as many as one million species are already on their way to extinction. It’s folly to think that we can throw away so much life and not have it affect humanity in a profound and negative way.”9

Photo of elephants. Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash
Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

“The biggest question of our time is: Will we wake up and act, or will we stare into our smartphones all the way down to disaster? My goal is to get the public to care about the extinction crisis while there’s still time to save the planet and everything that lives here.” -Joel Sartore10

Check out his work

Sartore did a TEDx Talk in 2013 and talked about photographing the first few thousand animals for The Photo Ark. The video is almost 20 minutes long but I promise it’s worth your time, especially the second half.

Sartore and The Photo Ark have published several books that feature his photographs, including children’s books. They include animals that have gone extinct just in the few years since he photographed them. There’s also a fascinating three-episode documentarian PBS series entitled Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark about this project. I’ve featured these books on my Books page under the Endangered Animals section. I’ll also put links to The Photo Ark’s store and the film under Additional Resources.

“The intersection of plants, animals, and their environment is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all. The National Geographic Photo Ark is using the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.” -Photo Ark Wonders11

What can you do?

There are so many things you can do! Follow legislation related to endangered species, habitat destruction, hunting and poaching, and pollution. Pay attention to what’s going on in your area locally, too. Donate money to any of the organizations that protect wildlife and the environment. Keep learning from leaders like Joel Sartore, Jeff Corwin, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and so many others that I haven’t mentioned. Share their information, shows, and books. Educate your friends and your children on the dangers of extinction. Spread the word!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Cover of Vanishing book

A note about the images used in this post: In order to not violate copyright and maintain a free website, I did not use any images belonging to Joel Sartore.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, The Photo Ark store, joelsartore.com.

Documentary, Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark, PBS, 2017.

 

Footnotes:

The Endangered Species Act is now Endangered

Photo of a leopard.Photo by Patrick Shields on Pixabay

I don’t like to write about topics related to politics, especially in our current divisive and eruptive political environment. However, sometimes politics cross the line and challenges important and vital environmental protections. This week, the Trump administration announced that it was going to essentially reduce the strength of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Before I get on my soapbox, please realize that there are many species that would be extinct today if not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This includes the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. They were placed under protection through the ESA in the 1970s when there were only 400 pairs remaining. They were removed from the list in the 2000s because their population increased to 20,000 pairs. It took almost 40 years of educating people, hunters, farmers, as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals for agriculture which inevitably makes their way into the food chain. This success story alone should be all we need to keep the ESA held sacred.

They’re moving fast on this as well – the new changes are expected to take place next month. Not many government changes go into effect that fast.

Black and white photo of a bald eagle.
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Including Economics in Assessment

The New York Times article explained, “the new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered.” The ESA previously did not allow for economic assessments when determining if a species deserves protection. “For instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat” would become part of the equation. This is dangerous because in government the short-term costs often outweigh the long-term benefits. This type of thinking could cause many species to become extinct.

“Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.” – NY Times

I can’t agree more! I champion this statement because it is exactly what’s going on.

According to the article, Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the revisions to the ESA. Of course he did.

We have to put nature first and make nature more important than profit and consumption.

Excluding Climate Change as a factor

While economic assessments will now be considered, revisions will go a step further by REMOVING the impact of climate change when evaluating how to best protect species. This is despite that study after study, CITES, the IUCN, and the United Nations have all determined that climate change is one of the critical challenges in protecting wildlife. A recent study in part from the UN declared that approximately one million species are at risk of extinction and that global warming is one of the biggest factors in wildlife decline and endangerment.

“The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term ‘foreseeable future.’ That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.” – NY Times

Photo of rhinoceros mother and calf in South Africa.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash

Politicians Claim Revisions are for “Modernization” and “Transparency”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the ESA and make it more transparent, which is just BS. “Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote that the act places an ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’ on companies.” He argued in 2018 that the ESA elevates protections for threatened species to the same level as those given to endangered species and that “we need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”

The distinctions were created because of scientific foresight. If a particular species is declared “threatened” the ESA allows protections to be put in to place to prevent that species from becoming endangered. We cannot wait for species to become endangered before we do something about it.

Bernhardt also wants species to stay on the list for less time. The reason species stay listed as threatened or endangered is because they are not recovering in population, habitat, and health. The argument that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list, is flawed. “Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.” That’s not because the standards have gone up! That’s because species are continually threatened and assaulted by a variety of human activities. Further, it seems that no one is looking at the numbers of species that went extinct while waiting to get on to the ESA’s list.

Photo of a sea turtle.
Image by Андрей Корман from Pixabay

This Is Not the First Time the ESA Has Been Attacked

Republicans have been working on relaxing and reducing this bill for several years, if not longer. I’m sharing a video of wildlife biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin (@wildcorwin) testifying at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in July 2017:

“Historically, the [Endangered Species Act] was not politically-based. Remember, it was produced in an administration that had tremendous challenges. And if it wasn’t for Richard Nixon, and his policies, we would not have bald eagles today.” – Jeff Corwin

Black and white photo of an African elephant and calf.
Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

“We celebrate the value of natural resources, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, through the work of Rachel Carson. And today, we as Americans, are unique and we have a such a splendid tableau of valuable species and landscapes. And it can only stay through wise, pragmatic, common-sense management, and I believe that the ESA is a big partner in that.” -Jeff Corwin

In response to this news, Corwin denounced the changes on social media:

“When we allow our political persuasions to destroy the very fabric of our country‘s wild legacy, then it will be our children that pay the ultimate price.”

Update (8/27/2019): I found this video of an interview with Jeff Corwin from the same date that I originally published this post:

You Can Help!

Everyone who knows even just a little about the Endangered Species Act knows that it has been overwhelmingly successful. So we have to fight this! Besides voting, here is a petition you can sign to help stop this! It will go to your state’s representative (it will ask you to donate but you are not required). I’m going to call my representative in the morning. We can be the change!

As always, thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

Inspiration abounds on Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island after sunrise
Hilton Head Island just after sunrise.

If you read my post about my family’s weekend trip to Hilton Head Island last fall, then you already know how much we love the island. We recently returned from a week-long trip there, and inspiration was all around! Besides the natural beauty of the island and the gorgeous beaches, there are many environmentally conscious things I appreciate about Hilton Head Island.

My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.

Plastic bag ban in Beaufort County, South Carolina

They implemented a plastic bag ban last fall, and I am here to tell you that from a tourist’s perspective, businesses have not been hurt by this. People were shopping in all the shops and supermarkets and the plastic bag ban did not seem to deter anyone from spending money. I have not found any studies on the result of this ban in the last 8 months, but I imagine the impact has been huge!

Unfortunately, I did find one article indicating that Target and Walmart are using supposedly “reusable” plastic bags. But since they are made of the same material as regular plastic bags, they defeat the whole purpose. I did not happen to shop at either store while there so I did not witness this first hand. As the article noted, that is disappointing.

At the other shops and stores I visited, I personally received only paper bags when I didn’t have my cloth bags with me. I love it! Can’t we do this everywhere?

Dunes with a palm tree.
Gorgeous dunes on HHI.

Wildlife

There’s a lot of cherished and protected wildlife on the island. We saw all types of birds, including pelicans – my favorite! We saw dolphins, tons of fish, and several types of crabs. There are also bald eagles, alligators, and turtles living on the island but we didn’t personally get to see those this time. The local government’s website educates on sustainable living, the types of local wildlife, native plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, and how everyone can help protect those things.

Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Baby crab, dark gray.
Baby crab!

Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

Although we did not see sea turtles this trip, we saw at least 7 cordoned loggerhead sea turtle nest areas. They were marked with orange signs provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which alerts the public about the protection of this endangered species through federal and state laws.

Loggerhead sea turtle nest sign, cordoned and marked by the South Carolina department of Natural Resources.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest, cordoned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area), cordoned off by the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area). The SC Department of Natural Resources cordoned the nests.

Many Atlantic coast towns have laws, regulations, and organizations to protect sea turtle nests. On Hilton Head Island, lights on buildings and hotels cannot shine in the direction of the beach. People are only permitted to use red or “turtle-safe” flashlights on the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. between May and October. They have a volunteer organization that patrols, monitors, and reports on sea turtle nests. They also clean up beach litter and plastics.

I read this article about a Kemp’s Ridley turtle making a nest on Hilton Head Island, a first-time event for the most endangered of all the sea turtle species! Wow!

The Coastal Discovery Museum has an “Adopt-a-Nest” Program, which not only sponsors the protection of a sea turtle nest but also supports the museum’s educational programs. Of course, this idea excited me so I absolutely adopted a nest while writing this post! They emailed me to let me know that my nest will be the 277th one this year and that they’ll keep me informed on the progress of my adopted nest.

Can I inspire you to adopt a nest as well? Just use the link above!

Baby sea turtles on the beach.
Photo by Skeeze on Pixabay.

Coastal Discovery Museum

The Coastal Discovery Museum on the island is a great non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate, dedicated to educating and protecting the natural resources, history, and ecosystems of the region. Their mission “inspires people to care for the Lowcountry,” through their many programs, exhibits, talks, and tours. What a great organization.

We’ve visited several times in past years but this year we did a Dolphin and Nature Cruise with the museum and really enjoyed it. And yes, we did see dolphins! The museum docent provided a dolphin skull replica and spoke about the anatomy, diet, and lifestyle of the local dolphins. The captain provided a rich tour about the history and nature of the island. Both the captain and museum docent were very knowledgeable and kept the passengers engaged for the entirety of the cruise. They even let each of the kids drive the boat for a few minutes!

My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.
My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.

Beach Trash

Hilton Head Island’s beaches are very clean and well maintained. And there are both trash and recycling cans up and down the beach. Even so, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these through Litterati (see also my post on Litterati). My next post will be about the types of trash I found and what you can do to prevent beach trash and ocean pollution!

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All photographs in this post were taken by me except where otherwise indicated.