The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Final Thoughts

Orca swimming inside of a lightbulb, lying on its side on a green forest floor with autumn colored foliage and trees in the background.
Image by Burak Erk from Pixabay

I want to end this series with some final thoughts and ideas for the future about orcas in captivity.

The Impact of Blackfish

My own interest in orcas began with the film Blackfish and my education about orcas grew from there. I found the documentary moving, educational, and enlightening. While some charge that Blackfish was one-sided, the producers, as indicated in the film, requested interviews with SeaWorld multiple times and SeaWorld declined all requests. Further, many other sources support the information in the film. SeaWorld spent years fighting against the film’s revelations, calling it propaganda, and even dedicating an entire website to trying to debunk the film. That website has since been taken down and their current website does not make a single reference to it that I could find. 

According to David Neiwert, “The marine-park industry attracts more paying customers than even the most popular sports leagues. In 2012, orca facilities around the world drew over 120 million people, more than the combined attendance of Major League Baseball, National Football League, and National Basketball Association games. Orcas are Big Money now.”1 Of course, the Blackfish effect permanently altered the course of the marine amusement park industry on the western side of the world. There have been many articles written about the film’s significant long-term effects, some of which I’ve included under Additional Resources below.

Still, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment alone had annual attendances of over 22 million in both 2018  and 2019.2 It is difficult to determine if SeaWorld has experienced a continued decline in recent years since 2020 and part of 2021 were affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Entertainment as Cause

Brochure cover advertising a trainer swimming on top of an orca.
1970s Marineland Niagara Falls brochure, image from Cetacean Collective on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In my article about wild orca captures, I explained how the marine amusement park business model developed over time. Killer whales were once feared and believed to be dangerous. “Then someone got the clever idea to capture one of these terrifying creatures and to put it on display. And that changed everything…The public’s fascination with orcas was remarkable, considering that less than a generation before, these creatures had mostly elicited shudders of fear.”3 Humans discovered how intelligent and easy it was to train killer whales to perform, much like circus animals, for the purpose of entertainment.

“Ironically, it is their intelligence that has made these animals desirable for public display—their ability to understand human commands and learn  complex behaviors or tricks has been exploited to provide humans with entertainment.” -Dr. Naomi Rose

Two orcas swimming in a marine amusement park pool.
Image by M W from Pixabay

The Argument For Captivity

In Of Orcas and Men, David Neiwert talked about his experience taking his daughter to SeaWorld when she was very young. He asked, “These parks deserve great credit for providing people the opportunity to actually see, in the flesh, one of these great creatures, but do they truly show orcas as they really are?”5 Of course, the answer is no. I have struggled with that exact point throughout my whole orca series: the parks allow people to see orcas, and most of us don’t have the opportunity to see one otherwise. Isn’t that one of the same arguments in favor of zoos? To allow people to see and learn about the animal kingdom so that they will want to protect them?

“Captivity has been a catastrophe for most killer whales taken from the wild. Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild.”8

Orca jumping out of the water near a coast with golden colored grass.
Photo by Shawn McCready on Flickr, Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Façade of Science and Education

Many marine amusement parks in the U.S. are AZA-accredited. But many have not contributed to science, conservation, and education to the extent that zoological parks have. As whale researcher, Erich Hoyt, noted in 1992, “Marine parks do not measure up to the best zoos or environmental groups in terms of supporting or conducting science.”“If science were a primary goal at marine parks, rather than display, much better scientific results could have been obtained with a fraction of the number of captive orcas and in a fraction of time.” Then the orcas could have been released. Hoyt argued that “science” was an excuse to keep captive orcas.

Marine amusement parks also do not educate their patrons about cetaceans in the wild, or at least not very accurately. SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks sometimes portray the ocean as a scary place that orcas face a lot of challenges within, which is misleading. “However, that does not mean captivity is a better place for them than the wild. It only means that the people who fear for their well-being in captivity, and wish to see it ended, also need to be engaged in helping killer whales to thrive in the wild.”11 SeaWorld and the other parks have an opportunity to inspire their patrons to help protect the natural world.

“There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.” -Jacques Cousteau

An Example in Morgan the Orca

Morgan the orca swimming in his tank
Photo by Annemieke Podt, found on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0)

Morgan is a female orca at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands whose captivity is very controversial. Accidentally separated from her family when she was about 3 years old, she was captured off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010. She was taken to Dolphinarium Harderwijk to receive medical care for starvation and dehydration. Morgan was supposed to be rescued, rehabilitated, and released back to the ocean. However, the marine amusement park transferred her to Loro Parque instead where she has become a performing orca and was integrated into the park’s breeding program in conjunction with SeaWorld. The original agreement stated that she would not be put on public display but that part was ignored. There was a year of lengthy court battles but in the end, Morgan sadly remains at Loro Parque. She is an example of a captive orca that could be released to a sanctuary, if not back to the wild.

“Children know conservation is important, but what more powerful lesson than to show them how to put conservation into action by returning something to nature? It would be a noteworthy gesture from marine parks that have earned so much money from cetaceans.” -Erich Hoyt

“If captive [cetacean] facilities were serious about trying to conserve the species that they possess, they would be focusing on protecting the habitats of populations in the wild and would actively be trying to ensure that their captive-bred animals could be reintroduced, and survive, in the wild.” -Dr. Naomi Rose

Orca jumping out of the sea.
Photo by Adam Ernster from Pexels

The View of Captivity is Changing

The view of orca and cetacean captivity is changing, though more on the western side of the world. As David Neiwert noted, “When we are forced to concede, as with orcas, that we are not unique in our intelligence, that we may not be the only creatures worthy of being considered persons, then we likewise have to reconsider our previous, Western-grown position as special beings somehow separated from nature.”14 But the marine amusement park industry is growing on the eastern side of the world, as I wrote about in a previous article. We, as human beings, have a long way to go in spreading the information and educating others about the problems of cetacean captivity.

“Growing awareness about the problems associated with captive cetaceans have led marine parks around the world to shut down or redefine themselves,” including India and Switzerland, both of which have banned orca captivity.15

The Future of Orcas in Captivity

There are many possibilities of drawing visitors to marine amusement parks without necessarily having real animals, especially ones that do not fare well in captivity. Several scientists have promoted the idea of having visitors view live feeds of wild whales, or offering virtual reality productions. Erich Hoyt wrote in 1992, “Anyone will then be able to experience life in an orca pod, to get a taste of life among wild whales at sea. With such possibilities, marine mammal shows which feature performing orcas will seem as passé as those spectacles of the Roman Colosseum. As public attitudes change, we believe that SeaWorld and other marine parks could make the transition to these new ways of ‘exhibiting’ marine mammals without any loss in admissions.”

Life-sized orca models at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with people in background.
Life-sized orca models at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Examples

The Vancouver Aquarium was the first to start changing its programming surrounding orca exhibition. In 1986, the programming featured information about the daily life of orcas and was perhaps the most educational show at any marine park at the time. Then, in 1991, they discontinued scheduled performances, moving away from the circus-like show, and instead offered limited training demonstrations.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which focuses on the complex marine environment of Monterey Bay in California, is a highly successful aquarium with no large captive cetaceans or marine mammals. They have life-sized models and wildlife viewing from their facility.

Blue whale model at the Natural History Museum in London
Some museums offer full-scale models of all types of cetaceans, such as this one. “Blue whale model” at the Natural History Museum in London. Photo by Matt Brown on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Viewpoints

“We need to realize that these are beings that suffer the same as we suffer, they want freedom the way we want freedom.” -Russell Simmons, music executive19

Orcas were once feared and called ‘killer whales.’ But orcas in captivity changed the view of millions of people. People started to view them as more like playful dolphins that were fun, loveable, and intelligent. “Studies of wild orcas followed – some of the first were to help regulate the number of live captures – and this research gave insight into the lives of the free, wild orcas and led some to question whether orca captures and the practice of keeping them in marine parks should continue.”

I don’t believe so. Humpbacks, blue whales, and other large cetaceans aren’t kept captive and people are still drawn to those animals. Interest breeds education and education breeds understanding. Also, the destructive wild captures have decimated some ecotype populations of orcas. Those populations might be fine if the marine amusement park industry hadn’t tried to capture so many, killing some unintentionally along the way.

Orcas swimming near Alaska, snowy mountains in background.
Photo by Christopher Michel on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Where do we go from here?

I encourage you to read books, articles, and publications, and watch documentaries about the issues in my Orca Series. I’ve listed many resources throughout my articles in this series. You can follow the organizations trying to help both captive and wild cetaceans and the scientists who work with those organizations. For example, the Whale Sanctuary Project is a proposal to build a large sanctuary for retired cetaceans in Nova Scotia. They have a large team of scientists and professionals and have conducted extensive research in order to build the sanctuary once fundraising is complete. Cetaceans from marine amusement parks will have a safe ocean area to retire to, where scientists will care for and monitor them.

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project has operated for decades to free dolphins from captivity. They’ve worked tirelessly to close down or prevent from opening dozens of facilities that would have held captive dolphins and whales.

Don’t support marine amusement parks if you aren’t sure about their practices and ethics. If you don’t want to support a company, don’t buy tickets to any of their parks, as some companies own multiple. SeaWorld Entertainment, for instance, owns 12 parks. Though SeaWorld seems to be improving its practices and being supportive of the ocean and wildlife, they have a ways to go. But they claim that every ticket helps support their rescue operations. What do you think?

“Humans, despite a poor record of respecting the rights of other humans, as well as whales in general…are now in the position of helping or hurting all life on Earth. The question may well become: Can humans be good managers without assuming the traditional role of exploiter?” -Erich Hoyt

Thank you for reading this series. I hope it’s helped you understand the issues, problems, and potential solutions regarding orca captivity. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Blackfish:

Article, “SeaWorld’s ’69 Reasons you Shouldn’t Believe Blackfish’ – My Rebuttal,” Inherently Wild, accessed April 7, 2021. This website also features a full database of captured orcas, deceased orcas, pregnancies, and mother and calf separations.

Webpage, “Blackfish Reviews,” Blackfishmovie.com, accessed April 1, 2021.

Article, “The Blackfish Effect,” The Nonhuman Rights Project blog, December 27, 2013.

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau:

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

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

Manuscript, “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity,” Dr. John S. Jett and Dr. Jeffrey M. Ventre, The Orca Project, January 20, 2011.

SeaWorld Curator: Ponytail Likely Caused Fatal Killer Whale Attack,” ABC News, February 25, 2010

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” by Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Morgan the orca:

Article, “Morgan the Orca: a Tale of Betrayal,” The Whale Sanctuary Project, December 9, 2017.

Website, The Free Morgan Foundation, accessed April 4, 2021.

Other:

Film, “Voiceless,” A Blue Freedom Film, 2016.

Page, “SeaWorld Cares,” SeaWorld Entertainment Blog, accessed July 20, 2021.

Organizations:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Empty The Tanks

Save The Whales

The Orca Project

International Marine Mammal Project

The Orca Research Trust

Animal Welfare Institute

The Humane Society of the United States

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Kiska and Kshamenk

Last updated August 21, 2021.

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland, Canada, 2011.
Kiska, a lone orca at Marineland, Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

In my last post, I told you about Hugo and Lolita. In this article, I’m going to tell you about two other orcas, Kiska and Kshamenk, who are suffering in captivity.

Kiska, Marineland Niagara Falls, Ontario

Kiska was caught at age 3 near Iceland in 1978 or 1979 and has lived at Marineland since. She lives in isolation from other orcas and all other marine mammals. She has birthed 5 babies and has experienced the death of all of them! The oldest one lived only to age 6. She exhibits many of the same symptoms of depression as Lolita does: stillness, lethargy, and despondency.1 Kiska is another orca that now lives alone.

Relationships

In 1979, Marineland purchased another female orca named Nootka. Kiska “developed what one former trainer called ‘an incredibly close’ connection with Nootka…and ‘they hated to be separated.’ They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported [each]other through labour.”2 Sadly, Nootka died in 2008 of unknown causes.

In 2006, SeaWorld Orlando separated a 4-year-old male orca from his mother and placed him on a breeding loan to Marineland. Ikaika “Ike” became Kiska’s only companion after Nootka passed away. However, he harassed her and the park often separated them, so they did not end up mating. Finally, in 2011 SeaWorld moved Ikaika to their San Diego park after a long custody battle between Marineland and SeaWorld.3

Kiska swimming in her tank, view from below the surface.
“Kiska was wild-caught off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, and lives alone in this tank.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Behavioral Changes

Kiska used to perform at the King Waldorf Stadium at Marineland. Today, she no longer performs but she is on public display and is a main attraction at the park. She’s often bored and chews on the concrete of her tank while also exhibiting other abnormal, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. Her teeth are completely worn down from this and she receives dental treatment (with anesthetics).

“People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project4

Habitat

The tank that Kiska currently uses is the one on the right in the image below. The pool on the left is for the beluga whales. According to a report by cetacean expert Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, “the beluga tank is currently off-limits to Kiska, although in the past she had access to it. The water temperature in all three tanks is maintained at 55˚F (12.7˚C) and therefore Kiska could be given access to the ‘beluga’ tank, if she was habituated to the presence of belugas. This  would additionally provide her with some form of ‘companion’ animals to alleviate the solitary confinement she is currently subjected to which has been well documented as unacceptable conditions for such a socially orientated animal.” The tank is not deep enough, as it is only approximately 30 feet deep. Last, neither Kiska nor the belugas have shaded areas to protect them from the sun, especially in the summer months.5

Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls.
Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls. Image taken from Google Maps.

Retirement

In 2015, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act. The act prohibits the possession or breeding of orcas in Ontario but allowed Marineland to keep Kiska. However, the Whale Sanctuary Project would welcome her into their care once their project is complete. Will Marineland give her up?

Kshamenk, Argentina

Orca jumping out of the water during a performance at Mundo Marino
“Lightness” by Lorenzo Blangiardi on Flickr, Mundo Marino, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kshamenk was born between 1987 and 1989 at the age of 3-5 years into an Argentinian mammal-eating population of orca. He is likely a transient orca, an ecotype of orca, and one of the only transients in captivity. He used to share the pool with a female killer whale known as Belen, who was also from this population. Kshamenk has not seen another orca since her passing. Mundo Marino moved a female bottlenose dolphin in with him and they have lived together ever since. However, we know how mentally unhealthy this is for orca.

Habitat – the World’s Smallest Orca Tank

The orca pool areas are much smaller than the dolphin areas, as you’ll see in the Google Earth screen capture below. The larger pool on the left is for the dolphins. The large oval pool is the performance area for both dolphins and Kshanenk, and the small pool at the center is where he resides when not performing. The park’s own map below confirms this. While there are far more dolphins than the one orca, the latter requires much more space for swimming and proper physical exercise. This is even smaller than the Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank.

Mundo Marino orca pools, aerial view, image captured from Google Earth
Mundo Marino orca and dolphin pools, image captured from Google Earth, February 20, 2021. This is the clearest image available from Google.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the smaller pool.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the main pool, and not the dolphin pool. The latter is much larger but their map does not accurately depict this. Image downloaded from Mundo Marino’s website, February 20, 2021.

Biologists say he is very healthy and his teeth are in great condition. But his pool is small and he often floats listlessly. The dolphins have more space than Kshamenk. I usually don’t use PETA materials, but this aerial film shows the pools much better than my screen captures from Google Earth:

At one time, Mundo Marino had planned to expand his tank. “In 1995, the oceanarium directors hired a US company specialized in designing life support systems for marine animals, that had built several facilities for Sea World. A place for the new (and bigger) pool was allocated northwest of Mundo Marino. All the pre-construction stages recommended by the specialists who conducted the floor geological study were successfully developed, but the construction had to be put off due to the economic crisis in Argentina (2001).”6 Obviously, the plans were never revived.

His capture

His 1992 capture was controversial as it is not clear if the oceanarium, Mundo Marino in San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina, rescued him or captured him from Samborombon Bay, Buenos Aires Province. As a report from the Wild Earth Foundation (WEF) explained: “The oceanarium claims to have rescued Kshamenk after he became stranded, WEF argued that he was collected opportunistically from a stranding rather than rescued and released.”7 There happens to be one small population of Patagonian transients in Argentina that intentionally strand themselves for hunting purposes, and Kshamenk may be related to that stranding orca pod.8 In any case, most captures of the late 20th century were unethical and questionable. “Although both parties can provide reasonable arguments about their claims, at this point in time it has little importance to argue about this issue.”9 Unfortunately, Kshamenk was not captured/rescued illegally since a law banning orca captures in Argentina was not passed until 1998.

Retirement?

The Wild Earth Foundation, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, and Earth Island Institute conducted a study regarding Ksamenk’s release from captivity. “The experts have concluded that a reintroduction project is not feasible for Kshamenk, as he is dependent on humans; he could revert to previous behaviors in the wild that may put him in danger, such as begging for food or seeking human company.” The IUCN does not recommend the release of an animal outside its indigenous range or into a different genetic stock. The report concluded:

“Introduction can cause extreme, negative impacts that are difficult to foresee. Kshamenk’s home range is unknown, and no study has been conducted to determine which genetic population he belongs to. While holding Kshamenk in a sea pen would provide him with a larger and richer environment that would allow him to engage in natural activities, such retirement plan is likely to fail in the current situation. The costs for a long-term care are excessive, and, mostly important, there are no adequate locations near the oceanarium or near the area of Kshamenk’s stranding, which would ensure protection from storms and other natural threats.”10

The Whale Sanctuary Project does not address Kshamenk on their website. However, since their organization partially rose from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, I assume that they are following the recommendations from the above-mentioned report. This is sad to me, as it seems there is no hope for this lonely orca. I’m hoping someone comes up with a plan for him in the future and I’ll be able to update this article.

Image of Kshamenk jumping out of the water at Mundo Marino
“Mundo Marino,” image of Kshamenk by -fabio- on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Captivity Continues

I’ve chosen not to write about the late Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, only because so many others have already written about him at length. Another orca I haven’t written about is Morgan at Loro Parque. There are several organizations working to free her. I’ve included some links about both under Additional Resources below.

“[Tilikum’s] life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species.” -Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish

Currently, there are over 60 orcas living in captivity, most of who are giving daily performances for entertainment purposes. Will Marineland Ontario give Kiska to the Whale Sanctuary Project and allow her to retire in a more natural setting with other orcas and plenty of room to swim? What will happen to Kshamenk? Will he pass away in captivity? What will happen to all of these beautiful beings?

Remember, if you don’t want to support orca captivity, don’t buy a ticket!  Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Marineland faces legal complaint about Kiska, ‘the world’s loneliest orca’,” by Bobby Hristova, CBC News,

Article, “Canadian park sues SeaWorld to keep killer whale,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 2011.

Report, “Kshamenk: The Forgotten Orca in Argentina,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 23, 2021.

Article, “Marineland’s Nootka should have lived free,” Niagara This Week, January 31, 2008.

Website, Free Morgan Foundation

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Hugo and Lolita

Last updated on June 13, 2021.

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. 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.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.

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 director18

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.”19

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.”20

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’Barry23

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.24

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 Neiwert25

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.

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: