The last surviving orca of the infamous Penn Cove captures of 1970 is dead.
AUGUST 18, 2023: Lolita (also known as Tokitae), the most famous orca in captivity, and the subject of a decades-long, global movement to retire her to a seaside sanctuary, has died at Miami Seaquarium. While reports of her deteriorating health have peppered the media over the last several months, this is no easy news to accept.
On a Facebook post dated earlier today, the Seaquarium stated that during the past two days, Lolita “…started exhibiting serious signs of discomfort.” The aquarium went on to say that while her medical team began treating her condition, “…she passed away Friday afternoon from what is believed to be a renal condition.”
“There is something profoundly obscene about a magnificent creature such as Lolita living and dying in a concrete and glass STADIUM. Unfortunately this abuse is going to continue until the consumer stops buying tickets. There is no other way to stop this madness. It’s about supply and demand. The government regulators won’t fix the problem—they ARE part of the problem. A portion of each ticket sold goes to government in the form of taxes. Please take the pledge not to buy a ticket.” ~ Ric O’Barry, Founder/Director of Dolphin Project
On August 8, 1970 at approximately four years old, Lolita was captured from the waters of Penn Cove, in the state of Washington. It was a violent capture, where five whales drowned, including four babies. This young member of the L pod of the Southern Resident killer whales was sold to Miami Seaquarium, a marine park located on Biscayne Bay, in Miami, Florida for $20,000 USD and in the following month, was shipped across the country to her new home.
Her “home” would be a concrete tank, known as the “Whale Bowl”. Another orca at the facility, Hugo, would eventually be moved into the tank alongside Lolita, where they performed their daily routines. For 10 years, the two orcas shared the Seaquarium’s spotlight. Despite mating, no offspring was produced.
But unlike Seaquarium’s glossy promotion of the happy duo, it was clear Hugo hadn’t adjusted well to life in captivity. It was commonly reported that Hugo would regularly and intentionally bash his head against the walls of the tank, specifically, against the viewing windows. On March 4, 1980, after 12 years of performances and repeated brutal, self-inflicted damage to his head, Hugo died of a brain aneurysm.
That would be the last orca Lolita would ever see. In the years following Hugo’s death, Lolita would share her tank space with other dolphins of various species. And while Lolita grew, her prison did not. For an orca that measured 22 feet in length, her space was grossly inadequate, measuring only 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep – 13 feet shorter than what is required by the Animal Welfare Act (Section 3.104). In addition, her exposure to the sun and weather violated Section 3.103(3)(b) of the Animal Welfare Act. Since 1978, Miami Seaquarium had been promising to build Lolita a new tank. But they never did.
Lolita’s presumed mother is Ocean Sun (L25). In her 80s, she still swims free.
With the Southern Resident killer whales in steep decline, Lolita’s capture has definitely had a detrimental impact on this community of orcas. Ocean Sun never had another calf, and is believed to now be the oldest living member of the Southern Residents. When Lolita was captured, a matriline ended.
In 2005, Lolita’s family was awarded Endangered Species Act protection. Initially, the U.S. government excluded any orcas (including Lolita) and their offspring who were in captivity prior to the listing. However, in 2015, after mounting pressure from conservationists, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) amended the Endangered Species Act listing to include Lolita. And yet, she remained at Miami Seaquarium.
For years, several animal welfare groups, including Dolphin Project, advocated for Lolita to be retired to a seaside sanctuary, where she could live out the rest of her years in peace and dignity. Week after week, large demonstrations took place outside the marine park. For an incredibly intelligent mammal with deep, familial bonds, wasn’t it time for Lolita to once again, have the opportunity to be surrounded by a world to which she was perfectly adapted? (And, speaking of family, experts believe that Lolita recognized the vocalizations of a family member when a recording was played for her by NBC Dateline in 1996.)
On March 30, 2023, a press conference was held by Miami Seaquarium, along with Florida non-profit Friends of Lolita and philanthropist and owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts Jim Irsay. During the conference, it was confirmed that Miami Seaquarium, managed by The Dolphin Company, entered into a formal and binding agreement with Friends of Lolita to return Lolita to an ocean sanctuary. According to a press release jointly issued by both parties, Lolita’s relocation was hoped to take place within the next 18-24 months.
But Lolita never got this chance, dying within man-made walls, the ocean literally a stone’s throw away.
Dolphin Project has worked for over 53 years to educate people on the inherent cruelty of dolphin captivity. The solution, while seemingly simple, would put a permanent end to dolphin shows. If there were no revenues to be made in the keeping of whales and dolphins, the practice would stop. We ask that you make this commitment and take the pledge to not buy a ticket to a dolphin show. Then tell others why you did.
Increased awareness can help end the suffering of other captive dolphins. Let this be Lolita’s legacy.
Featured image: Lolita performs in her tiny tank at Miami Seaquarium. Credit: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, User: Marc Averette, 2006