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:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Orca Health

Last updated on May 9, 2021.

"Orkid" at SeaWorld San Diego
“Orkid” at SeaWorld San Diego, image by Bryce Bradford on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In my last article, I explained how mother and calf separations are one of the greatest examples of why captivity is wrong for orcas. Today I want to look at their captive environments.

When visiting aquariums or zoos, we passively observe their habitats. For example, the sharks and sea turtles at the Tennessee Aquarium live in a tank that appears to mimic a natural environment: saltwater, a variety of other species and lifeforms, plants, coral, rocks, etc. At the Georgia Aquarium, shown below, whale sharks (which are sharks, not whales) live in a similar environment. At zoos, animals typically reside in an area that at least attempts to recreate the habitat native to the animal. Even if they’re too small, these exhibits include other animals, grass, trees, plant life, rocks, and water.

Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium
Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium, photo by Pengxiao Xu on Unsplash

Unnatural environments

The environments of captive orcas at marine theme parks don’t even try to replicate what orcas experience in the wild. None of the interesting things found in a vast ocean exist in the tanks, as they are barren with concrete walls. There is no plant life and there are no other species. The tanks are too small and the water isn’t even saltwater. There is nothing for them to echolocate on, and nothing for them to examine up close except for the humans that walk by the underwater viewing windows.

Orcas at SeaWorld Orlando
“Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)” SeaWorld Orlando. Image by V.L. on Flickr, public domain (CC0 1.0)

“The tanks speak for themselves.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

Captive environments alter the regular behaviors of many marine mammals. In the wild, they travel large distances in search of food. But in captivity, the animals eat and live in constricted spaces, so they lose natural feeding and foraging patterns. Worse, “stress-related conditions such as ulcers, stereotypical behaviors such as pacing and self-mutilation, and abnormal aggression within groups frequently develop in predators denied the opportunity to hunt.” Other natural behaviors altered in captivity include pod dominance, mating, and maternal care, which have negative impacts on the animals. “In most cases, these behaviors are strictly controlled by the needs of the facility and the availability of space. The needs of the animals are considered secondary.”

Inadequate Size

Simply looking at an orca tank, one can see that it’s far too small and shallow for such a large animal. They are unable to get enough daily physical activity. In the wild, orcas swim up to 100 miles per day, but they cannot swim anything close to that in the pools. Orcas typically dive hundreds of feet deep and the deepest pools at SeaWorld and other marine parks are about 40 feet. “Even in the largest facilities, a cetacean’s room to move is decreased enormously, allowing the animal access to less than one ten-thousandth of 1 percent of its normal habitat size,” wrote Dr. Naomi A. Rose.

“The pools of SeaWorld are gigantic – if you are a human being.” -John Hargrove

Dine with the Orcas programs
“Lunch with Orca, SeaWorld San Diego.” Image by Thank You (20 millions+) views on Flickr. Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

“No facility can simulate the vast reaches of the ocean that these animals traverse when they migrate, or can include in the enclosure oceanic flora and fauna. In short, in physical terms, the captive environment of these animals is profoundly limited and impoverished.”

Climate and Sun Exposure

The three SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas, and California, the Miami Seaquarium, Loro Parque, and Marineland of Antibes in southern France are all in hot, sunny places. Only SeaWorld San Antonio and Loro Parque feature a partially covered and shaded orca area, as you’ll see in the images below:

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Captive orcas spend hours resting at the surface of the water and spend a good deal of time jumping out of the water and up onto platforms. In nature, diving helps orca get out of the sun, and the depths of the water shade their skin from UV rays. Trainers use black zinc oxide on their skin, both to protect their skin and to cover up sunburns from public view. Jeffrey Ventre, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld’s Orlando park, told The Dodo that “zinc oxide is a way to paint over burns — like a mechanical coat — usually on [the] dorsal surface of the animal. It’s also for aesthetic reasons, to hide blistering peeling skin.”

“In any design of a dolphinarium or aquarium, satisfying the needs of the visiting public and the facility’s budget comes before meeting the needs of the animals. If every measure were taken to create comfortable, safe, and appropriate conditions, then the size, depth, shape, surroundings, props, colors, and textures of concrete enclosures would be different from those seen now.”

Water Quality

The chlorinated water is nothing like the composition of the sea. Live plants and fish species cannot live in chlorinated water, one reason the tanks are devoid of other life. Chlorine can also cause skin, eye, and respiratory complications for marine mammals. According to former senior trainer John Hargrove, SeaWorld treats the water with two other caustic substances, both of which can cause skin, tissue, and eye irritations. One is ozone, which controls bacteria that can contaminate the pools. The other is aluminum sulfate, which is very acidic and helps keep the water visibly clear.

Despite the chemical treatments of the water, a common cause of illness and death in marine mammals are bacterial and viral infections. According to the Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity, “US federal regulations do not require monitoring of water quality for any potential bacterial or viral pathogens (or other possible sources of disease), other than general “coliforms” (rod-shaped bacteria such as E. coli normally present in the digestive system of most mammals).”

“Humans cannot replicate the ocean…It is a paradoxical empire: the chemically processed water in the pools is purer than that of the ocean, but it is not anywhere near what is natural for the whales; the orcas cavort for the crowds but they do not get enough physical exercise because there is not enough room to allow them to swim normally.” -John Hargrove

Orcas flipping through air at SeaWorld Orlando
SeaWorld Orlando, image by Eduardo Neri Du from Pixabay

Auditory problems

Hearing is essential to orcas, as their primary sensory system is auditory. It is a highly-developed system that includes its ability to echolocate.  Unfortunately, they cannot use echolocation the same way they do in the ocean. The sounds bounce off of the walls of the barren pools reflecting nothing.

Additionally, there is often a lot of noise at marine amusement parks from fireworks displays, musical events, and roller coasters. These unnatural loud sounds disturb marine mammals daily, if not several times per day.

“The acoustic properties of concrete tanks are problematic for species that rely predominantly on sound and hearing to perceive and navigate through their underwater surroundings. Persistent noise from water pumps and filtration machinery, if not dampened sufficiently, and any activity nearby that transmits vibrations through a tank’s walls, such as construction or traffic, can increase stress and harm the welfare of these acoustically sensitive species.”

Illnesses from Mosquitos

Two captive orcas died from mosquito-borne illnesses, one at SeaWorld Orlando and the other at SeaWorld San Antonio. This is extremely unlikely to happen in the wild since cetaceans are below the water most of the time. According to an article in the Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology: “Unlike their wild counterparts who are rarely stationary, captive orcas typically spend hours each day (mostly at night) floating motionless (logging) during which time biting mosquitoes access their exposed dorsal surfaces. Mosquitoes are attracted to exhaled carbon dioxide, heat and dark surfaces, all of which are present during logging behavior. Further, captive orcas are often housed in geographic locations receiving high ultraviolet radiation, which acts as an immunosuppressant. Unfortunately, many of these facilities offer the animals little shade protection.”

Other Captive Ailments

Captive marine mammals suffer from a range of eye and dental problems that are unique to captivity. Many captive orcas experience dorsal fin collapse. This is likely caused by gravity from their fins being out of the water much more than in the wild. Overexposure to sunlight, stress and dietary changes contribute to these ailments as well.

Two orcas being fed at a marine park
Image by M W from Pixabay

End Captivity

The obvious conclusion is that humans should not keep captive orcas. We should not force them to live in large swimming pools for their entire lives. Nor should they be performing for humans for entertainment, as if it were the circus. Orcas and other marine mammals should be viewed in the ocean, either from boats, the Whale Trail,15 or a sanctuary. In my next post, I will show you some of the orcas currently living in captivity. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Tanked: Killer Whales in Captivity,” Hakai Magazine, May 12, 2015.

Article, “Why killer whales should not be kept in captivity,” BBC Earth, March 10, 2016.

Website, Voice of the Orcas, accessed January 21, 2021.

Article, “Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” NPR, March 23, 2015.

Footnotes: