Last updated on October 31, 2021.
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 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
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.
“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?'”11
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.”12 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.”13 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.”14 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.”15 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 Project16
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.17 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.”18 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 director19
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.”20
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.”21 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’Barry24
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.25
“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 Neiwert26
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!
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.