Oil could harm Puget orca in Miami, activist says

  • Thu Jul 15th, 2010 9:59pm
  • News

By Christopher Dunagan Kitsap Sun

BREMERTON — A rallying cry to return Lolita, the killer whale, to her original home in Puget Sound is growing intense as oil and toxic dispersants drift toward the Florida Coast.

It is a critical time to remove the orca and the other animals from Miami’s Seaquarium — before oil reaches the area, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been trying for years to convince the aquarium owners to return Lolita to Puget Sound.

Lolita, also known as Tokitae, is the last living Puget Sound killer whale in captivity. She was captured in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove on Aug. 8, 1970 — 40 years ago next month. For most of her life, the whale has lived in a tank filled with seawater pumped out of nearby Biscayne Bay.

Recent calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say there is a 61 to 80 percent chance that weathered oil will reach the “Loop Current” and move around to Florida’s East Coast, including Biscayne Bay and Fort Lauderdale. Garret contends that dispersants spreading with the oil are more toxic than the oil itself.

Seaquarium general manager Andrew Hertz said staffers are preparing a contingency plan to protect the animals if significant oil moves into the bay, but he maintains that the risk remains small for now, since the oil has not reached the Loop Current. In some news reports, Hertz has mentioned the construction of a closed-circulation system as a long-term solution.

Ric O’Barry, a former orca trainer turned animal activist, worked at the Seaquarium when it first opened in 1955 and for the following 10 years. He said the water-circulation equipment remains almost unchanged.

“If the oil enters her (Lolita’s) pool through the Seaquarium’s aging filtration system from the bay and makes contact with her sensitive skin, eyes or enters her blowhole, it would be certain death to her and the other animals in the facility,” he said in a news release on Friday.

A statement from Miami Seaquarium says the water-filtration system has been entirely replaced over the past five years, nearly doubling the rate of filtration. The killer whale pool goes through a separate set of filters and is tested every four hours, the statement says, though aquarium staff are not discounting problems if oil were to reach Biscayne Bay.

O’Barry says the aquarium now has a chance to do the right thing.

“They have an opportunity to relocate Lolita to clean water in her home range in a natural sea pen,” O’Barry told the Kitsap Sun. “The moment of truth has come now.”

O’Barry worked as the dolphin trainer for the television series “Flipper” in the 1960s. He later became fiercely opposed to keeping marine mammals in captivity and was featured last year in the Academy-Award-Winning documentary, “The Cove,” which exposed a bloody dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan.

O’Barry said it would be impossible to build a closed-circulation system by mid-August, when the oil could reach Biscayne Bay.

“It is physically impossible, even if they had the money yesterday,” he said. “If the oil does come, it’s all over. They will hold a ceremony when she dies and go on, knowing that the public has a short attention span.”

Garrett said the aquarium staff should spend the time before the oil arrives getting Lolita comfortable with a sling, which would be needed for the move.

In Puget Sound, a temporary net pen could be put together quickly, pending discussions about her ultimate future. Even if Lolita were never released, she would benefit from far more room to move about in Kanaka Bay on San Juan Island, where the owner’s permission has already been granted. And she would be near her own family, Garret said.

“I’m hoping that something happens this week,” he said. “I would like to see a letter from APHIS saying they have secured the cooperation of the Seaquarium. They can oversee the move and work with us.”

APHIS — the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that overseas animals exhibited to the public.

APHIS spokesman David Sacks said agency inspectors have been consulting with the aquarium for two months and will be inspecting the facility in the near future.

“The Animal Welfare Act standards require that all facilities holding marine mammals have a contingency plan to address foreseeable disasters,” Sacks said. “The Miami Seaquarium has such a plan. The facility has been in contact with APHIS about their plans for dealing with any oil that reaches their area.”

Asked for a copy of the plan, Sacks said the agency was only required to keep it for two years and no longer had a copy.

Said Seaquarium’s Hertz, “We have been consulting with APHIS as we develop our contingency plans. Once finalized, we will send the plan to them.”

Hertz said the aquarium is planning for the “worse-case scenario,” which assumes oil will reach Biscayne Bay. The intake of water from the bay can be shut off for a time, he said, but contingency plans will focus on a permanent solution. BP, which is responsible for the oil spill, could be asked to contribute to the cost, he said.

Moving the animals is not a consideration, Hertz added.

“Miami Seaquarium is home to Lolita and all of the marine animals in our care,” he said. “Our contingency planning for the threat from the oil spill will ensure that all of the animals will remain safe at the park, as they have been for the last 55 years.”

Orca Network is planning to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Lolita’s capture on Aug. 8 on Whidbey Island, including a wreath-laying ceremony at Penn Cove beginning at 3 p.m., followed by a reception with guest speakers, including O’Barry.