This is the second captive orca to die in captivity in the US this year, as we lost Kiska at Marineland Ontario/Niagara Falls in March.
She was so close to being back in the ocean, where she belonged. Scientists even believe her mother is still living in the Pacific Northwest and that they could’ve possibly been reunited someday.
Tokitae, formerly known as Lolita, lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years. The marine amusement park recently signed an agreement to release her back to the Pacific Northwest, and you can read the updates here. This effort took many years and involved scientists, marine biologists, activists, documentarians, writers, etc. The owner of the Indianapolis Colts offered to pay for her transport from Miami to the west coast. The Lummi Nation was going to monitor and care for Tokitae in her new home. The wheels were set in motion and the plans were established.
But it was too late, the Miami Seaquarium should’ve let her go years ago.
I cried pretty hard when I saw the press release from the Whale Sanctuary Project. I really believed Tokitae was going home.
The Friends of Toki and the Whale Sanctuary Project were the two organizations actively working to get her back to the ocean. But there were other individuals and organizations that helped raise awareness and money for over a decade. Thank you to everyone who ever advocated for Tokitae, whether you wrote about her, filmed her, protested for her release, raised money, or raised awareness about her. So many of us loved her and cared about her. She will always be in our hearts.
Last updated on July 16, 2023. Click here for the latest information.
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
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.”2The 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
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 Canada).
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
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
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
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
A trainer at the Miami Seaquarium travels several feet into the air by holding on to Lolita the Killer Whale, the second oldest orca in captivity, as she jumps out of the water, 2022. This must have been captured just shortly before the marine amusement park stopped having her perform. Credit: Miguel Endara / We Animals Media.
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.
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.
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!
The Miami Seaquarium announced that Lolita/Tokitae will no longer be on display. This is because the USDA granted the new owner (The Dolphin Company) a new license to operate the park on the condition that they no longer display Tokitae or Li’i, the Pacific white-sided dolphin that shares a tank with Tokitae.22
The Dolphin Company allowed an independent health assessment of Tokitae in cooperation with Friends of Toki and The Whale Sanctuary Project. They found her to be in good health overall and planned to continue monitoring her.23
In March 2023, the Miami Seaquarium announced its agreement to release Lolita/Tokitae! The plan “is the result of a ‘binding agreement’ among The Dolphin Company, which operates the Seaquarium, Miami-Dade County and animal rights advocates, the company said. The move comes after an outcry from those who complained for years that an animal from the ocean should not be kept in a small tank.”24This has taken years, but finally, it may happen!
Jim Irsay, philanthropist and owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has offered to pay for Lolita’s/Tokitae’s relocation. This will cost millions and may require the use of a 747 plane or a C-17 military plane. The relocation will involve building a sanctuary with netting in the Pacific Ocean off the northwest coast of the United States, which will require a permit from the USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She will need to be monitored 24/7 and require veterinary care. She will need trainers to help her adapt and teach her how to catch fish again since she’s been in captivity for so long.25 It will take a village, but many of us are hopeful that this allows her to live out the rest of her life happily and with her family.
Eduardo Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company, said: “Finding a better future for Lolita is one of the reasons that motivated us to acquire the Miami Seaquarium. With the help of Jim Irsay and Pritam Singh [co-founder of Friends of Toki], we are bringing that dream, the dream of returning Lolita to her home waters, closer than ever.”26
“I know Lolita wants to get to free waters. I don’t care what anyone says. She’s lived this long to have this opportunity. And my only mission is to help this whale get free.” -Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts27
For now, she remains in her small tank but is no longer performing or on exhibit. While the stadium is in poor condition and is no longer open to the public, the pool itself does not appear to have structural issues. In the last six months, the life support system that maintains the water quality in Toki’s pool has been upgraded and dramatically improved. With a systems investment of more than $500,000 in new chillers, filter media, an ozone generator to replace chlorine, and numerous regulators and pump replacements, Toki’s water quality is the best it has been in years and is monitored daily.” A hurricane plan is finally in place.
Friends of Toki state that there are four areas of concentration: 1) Current care for Lolita/Tokitae and conditioning her for transport to Washington State and life in an ocean enclosure. 2) Tribal consultation with the Lummi Nation; Washington State permitting for the site development of her ocean habitat. 3) A law firm is consulting on the federal regulatory side of her relocation, as Tokitae was captured before the Marine Mammal Protection Act, so she’s not protected by that act, and she is no longer under the protection of a federal (USDA) public display permit. 4) The design, fabrication, and installation of the ocean habitat enclosure and barrier net.28
She’s currently 57 but could live several more decades. Her likely mother, Ocean Sun, still resides with the L-pod, and many hope they will be reunited. Stay tuned by subscribing to me, the Whale Sanctuary Project, and Friends of Toki.
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.1 Eventually, laws ended these practices and captures. But this directly led to the establishment of breeding programs at SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks.
“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.”2
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.”3
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.”4
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.5 Downtown shops sold Namu souvenirs. There are two songs and a film about Namu.6
“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.”7
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.8
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
Ted Griffin continued pursuing orcas and was part of the famous Penn Cove massacre in August 1970 when four orcas were drowned in their nets. In a failed effort to cover up the deaths, Griffin ordered workers to cut the whales open and weigh them down with chains and rocks to sink them. But the corpses were caught in a fisherman’s net and hauled to shore a few months later, and news reporters captured the event. “Griffin lost the stomach for orca captures after the Penn Cove debacle and dropped out after 1972.”13
“Every one of the fifty Southern Resident whales captured by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry from the Puget Sound is now dead, with one exception…Lolita.” -David Neiwert14
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.’15 Conservation was the term used to claim these exemptions.
“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.”16
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) granted SeaWorld an economic-hardship exemption in 1974. This allowed them to continue the practice of hunting orcas.17 All of this affected the Southern Resident populations.
NOAA grants other exceptions under the MMPA. Examples include scientific research, photography, capture, or first-time imports for public display in aquariums, or rescues.
In 1975, Washington State filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld and in 1976, 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.18 Southern Resident orcas lost a third of their population to capture by 1975 and the ecotype has never fully recovered. “Nearly a whole generation of reproduction was represented in the whales captured and killed,” wrote David Neiwert.19 The Southern Residents were 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. SeaWorld hired Don Goldsberry, who had been a part of the Puget Sound massacre, to go to those areas.20 “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.”21 Forty-eight of these orcas have died in captivity.22 Killer whale capture in Iceland ended in 1989 (but whale hunting, in general, began again in 2003).
Tilikum was one of the wild captures from Iceland and the North Atlantic.23 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.
“All cetacean capture methods are invasive, stressful, and can potentially be lethal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose24
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.”25
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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 thisspecies in the world—she is longer than half the width of the main tank.”10
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
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.”15The 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
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.
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?
“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
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.25 In fact, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew flooded the Miami Seaquarium and six of their sea lions were electrocuted.26 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
“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!
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.