Killer whale captured off Whidbey Island lives at Florida theme park

Forty-three years ago, Lolita the orca and more than 40 other killer whales were herded into Penn Cove off Whidbey Island, captured and taken to marine theme parks.

Lolita, performing in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium since her capture, has been the lone survivor of that group since 1988.

In the mid-1990s, local whale activists started a movement to return Lolita to the wild. Members of her immediate family still swim the waters of Western Washington, according to orca watchers.

Now, two high school girls are renewing the campaign to have Lolita released.

So far, the Miami Seaquarium has refused to relinquish its lone orca.

Now believed to be about 47 years old, Lolita is a featured attraction for visitors there along with dolphins and sea lions.

“Moving Lolita in any way, whether to a new pool, a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be an experiment. And it is a risk with her life that we are not willing to take,” said a statement released through the marine park’s public relations firm, the Conroy Martinez Group of Coral Gables, Fla.

In 2003, a documentary was released, titled “Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.” Included in the film is footage of the harrowing 1970 capture, in which the orcas were herded with boats and explosives.

A film released earlier this year, “Blackfish,” about another orca that has killed two trainers while in captivity, was shown a couple of months ago in Seattle.

Keely Clark and Angelica Enkhee of Edmonds, both 17, attended the showing with their mothers.

Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Orca Network, spoke before the film and told Lolita’s story.

Clark said she was inspired by the talk and the film to take action.

“That’s so sad for her not to be back with her family,” Clark said.

Clark, her mother, Dawn, and Enkhee made arrangements with the Edmonds Theater to have the Lolita documentary shown there at 7 p.m. Sept. 29.

The event is primarily intended to raise awareness about Lolita, though donations will be accepted, Keely Clark said.

The Orca Network has a small fund of a couple of thousand dollars dedicated to Lolita’s cause, Garrett said. The group won’t make a big fundraising push unless the Miami Seaquarium agrees to give up the orca, he said.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon.

“It would be irresponsible, reckless, and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety in order to appease a group of activists,” the park statement said.

Several groups, led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, last year sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over Lolita’s living conditions at the Miami Seaquarium.

The suit alleges that the orca’s confinement to an 80-foot-by-60-foot tank violates the federal Animal Welfare Act. The Orca Network is among the plaintiffs named in the suit.

According to the Seaquarium statement, USDA inspectors have told park officials that Lolita’s living conditions exceed minimum legal standards.

A previous attempt to return a killer whale to the wild did not go as well as hoped.

Keiko, an orca captured near Iceland in 1979, lived most of his life in theme parks. He drew attention after he was featured in the 1993 film “Free Willy.”

With help from cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw, Keiko was returned to open waters near Iceland in 1998. He later swam to Norway and died there in 2003 at about age 27.

“Keiko’s veterinarian believes that acute pneumonia is the most likely cause of death, though he also cited that Keiko was the second oldest male orca whale ever to have been in captivity,” according to the website dedicated to the famous orca.

Keiko never was able to find his original family, according to Garrett. The orcas native to Western Washington, however, are known for staying put, he said. The southern resident population, as it is called, is distinct from other “transient” orcas that move through the area.

Members of Lolita’s family still swim in the waters around the San Juan Islands, activists say. Lolita’s mother, known as L25 or Ocean Sun, is believed to still be living at age 82, according to the Orca Network.

Killer whales live 50 to 80 years in the wild, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The southern resident orcas’ population has dropped in recent years and they are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

As of last month, the population numbered 82 whales, the lowest in a decade, according to the Orca Conservancy, a Seattle-based advocacy group.

If Lolita were to be moved, she would be placed in a sling and suspended in a specially made crate half full of cold water — standard practice for transporting large marine mammals, Garrett said.

That crate would be loaded onto a plane and Lolita would be flown out from Florida. The orca’s current trainers and handlers would have to accompany her, Garrett said.

“It’s important for her familiar companions to be with her the entire time,” he said.

Lolita would be brought to a cove off San Juan Island and kept in an underwater corral until she reacclimates and comes into contact with her family. The pen would eventually be removed.

Experts would supervise and care for Lolita should she shy away from swimming into open water, Garrett said.

Based on Seaquarium’s statement, it’s a moot point.

“Lolita is healthy and thriving in her permanent home of almost 43 years where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins,” the statement reads.

“She will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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