The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Wild Captures

A baby orca with two adults, jumping out of a pool during a performance.
Photo by Holger Wulschlaeger from Pexels

For as long as there have been stories and records about it, whale hunting has always been brutal, barbaric, and gory. Capturing orcas and other marine mammals for sale to aquariums and amusement parks is just as violent and brutal. Whale hunters have used explosives, helicopters, and other fear tactics to separate orcas from their pod. Many orcas have been killed accidentally in the process. Even more reprehensible was the cover-up of those deaths. Whale hunters posthumously cut open dead orcas and stuffed them with rocks to sink their bodies. Additionally, these captures in the 1960s and 1970s greatly reduced the populations of orcas, particularly the Southern Resident orcas.

At least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961, and 129 of these orcas are now dead.

Wild orcas in the sea
Photo by Nitesh Jain on Unsplash

Whale Capture

“Most cetacean capture methods are extremely traumatizing, involving high-speed boat chases and capture teams violently wrestling animals into submission before hauling them onto a boat in a sling and then dumping them into shallow temporary holding tanks or pens.”

The Vancouver Aquarium

In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium captured an orca named Moby Doll, a male that they first believed was female. Originally, the aquarium had no intention of capturing an orca. They actually commissioned an artist to kill an orca to use as a body model for a killer whale sculpture. However, after harpooning a young whale and then shooting it several times, the whale did not die. Instead, the orca followed its captors as if on a leash for 16 hours in order to avoid the pain of resistance with the harpoon in his back. The aquarium put Moby Doll on display for scientists and the public to view. He did not eat for 55 days. When he started eating finally, he consumed 200 pounds of fish per day. But he never fully recovered and died after 87 total days of captivity.

“Moby Doll was the first orca ever held in captivity, and his amazing qualities, seen by humans for only those hard last months of his life, started both a new appreciation for orcas and a new industry of catching and displaying the whales for entertainment.”

The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps captive whales. “After Moby Doll, [they] got more orcas and kept at least one in captivity until 2001, when its last orca, an Icelandic whale nicknamed ‘Bjossa,’ was shipped away to SeaWorld in San Diego, where she soon died.”

Seattle Marine Aquarium at Pier 56

In 1965, Fishermen accidentally caught Namu the orca in their net in Canadian waters. Namu was the first captive performing killer whale. They contacted the owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, Ted Griffin, who bought Namu for $8,000. Griffin put him on display. “Crowds flocked to Pier 56 to watch Griffin ride the whale and to see Namu jump on command,” according to The Seattle Times. Downtown shops sold Namu souvenirs. There are two songs and a film about Namu.

“Within a month, Griffin made history, becoming the first human ever known to ride a killer whale…Visitors and the press were crazy for the story of Griffin and Namu.”

Griffin intended to capture another whale so that Namu would have a mate. Activists and scientists protested. Then two female whales died during Griffin’s effort, which exacerbated the issue. In the midst of that, Griffin received approval to build a new marine park as a new home for Namu. But the project never came to be.

Proposed "marine park" at Seattle Center, 1966, elevations/drawing.
Proposed “marine park” at Seattle Center, 1966. Image from the Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Namu’s legacy

The success of the aquarium from having Namu “spark[ed] a period of orca captures in the region, when a generation of southern resident killer whales was taken and shipped to aquariums around the world.”9 Other marine amusement parks sought the financial success of having captive performing orcas. Unfortunately, it became an established practice.

“Namu fever stoked an international craze for killer whales to put on exhibit all over the nation and the world. Captors particularly targeted the young, the cheapest to ship.”10

Sadly, Namu died within one year. He drowned after he became entangled in the netting of his pen. The autopsy revealed a massive bacterial infection caused by the raw sewage polluting the bay,11 and this likely contributed to the whale’s disorientation and drowning.12

Wild orcas swimming off of the coast of Alaska. Snow covered mountains in background.
“Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)” near Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska. Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972

In the 1960s and early 1970s, whale captures were largely unregulated and were completely legal. Humans captured hundreds of orcas and thousands of marine mammals during those decades for all types of purposes. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 (MMPA) in direct response to concerns about the effects of human activity on marine mammals. But at the insistence of the theme park industry, Congress gave an exemption for marine mammals in zoos and aquariums, under the facade of ‘for educational purposes.’

“When drafting the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), members of the US Congress believed, or were lobbied into  promoting, the long-accepted view that the public display of wildlife (at facilities such as zoos and aquaria) serves a necessary educational and conservation purpose.”

NOAA grants other exceptions under the MMPA. Examples include scientific research, photography, capture, or first-time imports for public display in aquariums, or rescues.

Orca jumping out of the ocean
Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

Washington State

In 1976, Washington State closed its waters to killer whale captures, a direct reaction to the ridiculous craze for capturing them. “By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured — many multiple times — in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one,” referring to Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. classified as endangered in 2005.

Icelandic and North Atlantic captures

Less than 8 months later, SeaWorld and other marine parks moved their capture operations to Icelandic and North Atlantic waters. “Tilikum was a victim of the wild capture efforts that shifted to Iceland and the North Atlantic after they were run out of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s,” as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation of North America described. Tilikum was the whale who killed his trainer in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando and may have been responsible for two other human deaths during his captive history. He passed away in 2017. Whale hunters captured Keiko, the star of Free Willy, from the same area. Kiska, whom I wrote about previously, was also captured there.

“Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world. [Seventeen] of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks.” Forty-eight of these orcas have died in captivity.

“All cetacean capture methods are invasive, stressful, and can potentially be lethal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

Four orcas jumping out of the water at Marineland Antibes
“Orca Whales (Orsinus orca), Marineland, France,” by Spencer Wright on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

After 1989

Laws prohibiting wild captures led to the establishment of captive breeding programs at marine amusement parks. Over the last 40 years, this practice has become the new standard for replenishing orca stock. “One of the keys to SeaWorld’s success was its ability to move away from controversial wild orca captures to captive births in its marine parks. The first captive birth that produced a surviving calf took place at SeaWorld Orlando in 1985. Since then, SeaWorld has relied mostly on captive breeding to stock its parks with killer whales, even mastering the art of artificial insemination.”

Thankfully, the practice of captive breeding is now ending in the western world. But in other parts of the world, marine amusement parks are growing in popularity. This means wild captures are now on the rise in those areas. In my next article, I’ll share some of this information with you. Thanks for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “A Whale of a Business: Laws, Marine Mammal Legislation,” Frontline Online, PBS, accessed March 3, 2021.

Video, “Choosing between hunting & saving whales,” CNN.com, November 18, 2014.

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Hugo and Lolita

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 yet have an orca tank. He lived in an even smaller tank, the present-day manatee tank, for the first 2 years. The current tank was completed in 1970 and is the one the park still uses.

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.”2 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.3 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.4 They did not memorialize his life or death in any way, “it was as if he had never existed.”5 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.”6 

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. (Unfortunately, this agency has not forced the Miami Seaquarium to either release Lolita or to expand the tank). 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.8 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.”9 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.”10 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. 

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.”11 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.”12 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.”13 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.”14 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 Project15

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.16 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.”17 The argument against her retirement is that she will not survive in the wild.

But 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! 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

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.”18

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.”19

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’Barry22

Why is Lolita still living in captivity?

After Hurricane Irma, the Miami Beach City Commission “voted unanimously on a resolution urging the Seaquarium to release the orca from captivity. The proposal is only symbolic because the Seaquarium is located on Virginia Key, 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.23

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

As mentioned above, there are many organizations advocating for Lolita’s release. There are current proposals for her to move to a sea pen where she will have human care since she cannot simply be released into the ocean. 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.

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.

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: