Born: 1966 (estimated)
Captured: August 8, 1970, Penn Cove, Washington, United States
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 the 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 was the last orca Lolita has ever seen. 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 measures 22 feet in length, her space is 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 fact, Lolita resides in the smallest orca tank in North America. In addition, her exposure to the sun and weather violates Section 3.103(3)(b) of the Animal Welfare Act. Since 1978, the Miami Seaquarium has been promising to build Lolita a new tank. But they never have.
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 the Miami Seaquarium.
For years, several animal welfare groups, including Dolphin Project, have 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 have taken place outside the marine park.
After thousands of repetitive, theatrical shows, isn’t it time for Lolita to once again, feel the rhythms of the sea?
For an incredibly intelligent mammal with deep, familial bonds, isn’t it time for Lolita to once again, have the opportunity to be surrounded by a world to which she is 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.)
But Lolita has never gotten this chance, and continues to languish within man-made walls, the ocean literally a stone’s throw away.
Dolphin Project has worked for almost 52 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.
Featured image: Lolita entertaining paying patrons at the Miami Seaquarium.