Death of Lolita brings heartbreak after years of effort to free captive orca

Lolita was held captive at Miami Seaquarium for 50 years and died shortly before return to Salish Sea sanctuary

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The violence of her capture stunned the world.

Now animal lovers and activists are hoping the death of Lolita, a 57-year-old killer whale who was taken from the waters of the Pacific Northwest in 1970 will not be in vain.

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For 50 years, Lolita was held captive at Miami Seaquarium. After years of lobbying and legal efforts, Seaquarium agreed to return Lolita to an ocean sanctuary in the Salish Sea.

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But less than five months before those plans could be realized, Lolita has died at Seaquarium after a short illness.

On Aug. 8, 1970, the four-year-old Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was with her pod of southern resident orcas on their annual migration through the waters of Penn Cove near Whidbey Island.

Hunters led by Ted Griffin, a Seattle aquarium owner, pursued the pod in speed boats, trapped them in an inlet, used sound bombs to stun them, then used prods to separate the adolescents, including Lolita, from their mothers.

Local Washington state residents said their screams could be heard for miles.

One mother drowned while trying desperately to free her calf from the nets. Four adolescents drowned while trying escape. Their hunters dragged their bodies out to sea by night, mutilated them and weighted them down with rocks.

The horrific capture made national headlines and when the bodies of the four mutilated whales washed up on shore three months later, the tide of public opinion turned against the capture and imprisonment of whales.

Lolita was sold to Seaquarium in Miami, where she was kept for 50 years in the world’s smallest orca tank. Lolita became an international symbol for the plight of marine mammals in captivity.

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“It’s very, very sad. Everybody was hoping for a fairy tale ending,” said Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at UBC. “Her death and the discussion around it will give us cause to reflect on the errors of our past, and ensure that we will not repeat them.”

Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at UBC inside the Beaty Biodiversity Museum with skeleton of a blue whale. He hopes the death of Lolita the orca has no been in vain.
Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at UBC inside the Beaty Biodiversity Museum with skeleton of a blue whale. He hopes the death of Lolita the orca has no been in vain. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

The Vancouver Aquarium was one of the first in the world to capture and display a live killer whale in 1964.

At the time, founder Murray Newman’s plan was to kill it and use it as a specimen to create a life-size model of its corpse for display. Moby Doll, a member of J pod, survived the hunt, and was brought to a pen at Jericho beach where it lived another 87 days — at that time the longest a killer whale had survived in captivity.

Moby Doll’s popularity reportedly fuelled Griffin’s interest in what would become, for him, a highly profitable business. Between 1965 and 1973, some 263 killer whales were caught or killed in the waters of British Columbia and Washington state. Twelve died during capture, 50 were sold to aquariums for anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 each. The rest escaped or were released.

“At the time, people were not really aware of what was going on,” said Trites. “There was a lot of naiveté about how many whales there were. People thought there were thousands.”

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There were also misconceptions about killer whales, said Trites. “Everyone thought killer whales were ferocious.”

What we’ve learned since shows that killer whales have high intelligence, complex, close-knit family structures, and share familial bonds much like humans. “Some stay with their mothers their entire lives,” said Trites.

Although much of what we now know about killer whales was learned while they were in captivity, much more can be learned by studying the animals in the wild, said Trites.

“Now, we look back in horror. At the time, people were ignorant about what they were doing and the impact they were having.”

Today, the southern resident killer whale population hovers at just 74 or 75 animals. They are facing extinction due to dwindling supplies of chinook salmon, increased shipping and climate change, said Trites. Although their future is “very, very bleak,” Trites said efforts are being made to reduce overfishing of chinook, and to establish protective regulations.

The capture of orcas was phased out in 1972 in the U.S. and banned in 1976. In Canada, the practice was outlawed in 1982.

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In 2017, the Vancouver park board passed a bylaw banning cetaceans in city parks; after taking the issue to court, the Vancouver Aquarium and faced public criticism and agreed to cease displays of whales and dolphins. It has had no orcas in captivity since 2001.

“Lolita was an ambassador for killer whale conservation, and I have no doubt that the concern we have for the population that remains is in large part due to her.”

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