By Chabeli Herrera / Miami Herald
MIAMI — Supporters of releasing the Miami Seaquarium’s killer whale, Lolita, have a message for the theme park: We aren’t going anywhere.
They now count among their ranks Florida gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine and the Lummi Nation tribe of Washington, whose traditional territory in the Salish Sea also served as Lolita’s native waters.
Levine, members of the tribe and of Orca Network, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for Lolita’s release, met at Levine’s Miami campaign headquarters Tuesday morning to announce the next steps in their effort to move Lolita from the Seaquarium to a sea-pen in the San Juans.
The Lummi Nation are calling the effort to release Lolita, also known as Tokitae, a “sacred obligation” they plan to pursue. Kurt Russo, the Lummi Indian Business Council’s political strategist, said he believes the tribe will be able to easily secure the $3.6 million needed to support Lolita’s retirement plan, though he did not reveal the names of the private foundations that would support the plans.
The groups, in conjunction with filmmakers Dennie Gordon and Geoff Schaaf, also have developed a nine-minute trailer for a full-length documentary they plan to finalize if and when Lolita is relocated to the Pacific Northwest.
“Tokitae’s story needs to be heard and needs to be shared. It’s the right thing to do,” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation, at Tuesday’s event. “We have much concern for the conditions she is kept in today.”
Lolita was captured in 1970 in a mass roundup of whales off Puget Sound and later taken to the Miami Seaquarium, where she has lived for more than 47 years. Now more than 50 years old, she is the last remaining survivor of the 50-plus whales captured Aug. 8, 1970.
Her tank, the smallest killer whale tank in the country, has become a symbol of her captivity. Though the legality of the size of her tank has been questioned numerous times, a 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture ruling that the tank is adequate still stands.
Still, activists advocate for change. The most extensive plan for Lolita’s release was developed in 1996 by the nonprofit Tokitae Foundation, which later became Orca Conservancy. It involves teaching her to swim into a sling, transporting her via a truck and then a military transport aircraft to the Pacific Northwest. There she would be re-acclimated to her native waters in a controlled sea-pen environment and eventually released to the wild.
But the plan’s success also hinges in part on whether Lolita’s current veterinarians and trainers at the Seaquarium would be willing to make the journey with her to care for the orca in her native home.
So far, the Seaquarium has not supported that plan. The Lummi Nation has sent various letters to the Seaquarium requesting a meeting, which the park has declined.
“We have responded to Lummi Business Council in writing twice in the last couple of months declining a meeting because any discussion about relocating Lolita to a sea-pen is not in her best interest and so, it is not something that we will consider,” said Eric Eimstad, the Seaquarium’s general manager, in a statement.
The park believes that moving Lolita from her home of nearly five decades would be detrimental to her health.
“Moving Lolita to Puget Sound, what is now a foreign environment to her, would not only expose her to a wide variety of new health threats, but doing so could pose the same risks to the wild killer whale population,” Eimstad said in a statement.
Late last year, the Miami Herald spoke to a dozen experts on orcas around the nation. Most advised against moving Lolita.
Shari Tarantino, president of the board of directors at Orca Conservancy, the Washington-based nonprofit organization involved in developing Lolita’s retirement plan, told the Herald that while the organization advocates for Lolita’s release, it also is concerned about her ability to survive in a new environment.
“Killer whales and other cetaceans that have been in a facility for more than about two years have exhibited increased mortality rates when moved to a new setting,” Tarantino told the Herald last year, referring to orcas that have been captured from the wild, transferred between aquariums, or released to the wild. “Thus (Lolita) would be a bad candidate for moving out of her current facility.”
Whether or not Lolita is a good candidate for transfer is unclear. Her medical records are sealed by the Seaquarium, which bills her as its star attraction.
Her transfer is further complicated by the fact that the orca is on the endangered species list for the Southern Resident Killer Whale, which means her release would require a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. National Marine Fisheries Service has ruled that any plans to move Lolita would undergo “rigorous scientific review.”
Still, Levine, Lummi Nation and the Orca Network remain bullish on what they expect will be Lolita’s eventual release.
As Miami Beach mayor, Levine helped pass a symbolic resolution in October calling for Lolita’s release and is now pushing her message in his gubernatorial campaign. The Lummi Nation has planned a 27-day, 13-stop tour with a totem pole designed to honor Lolita, which will end with a two-day event in Miami on May 23 and 24. The tribe has named the “Bring Tokitae Home” project as its highest priority; they have scheduled events advocating for Lolita’s release every three months through March 2019.
Howard Garrett, co-founder, director and president of the board at Orca Network, said he expects the Seaquarium to change its mind and eventually work with the groups toward Lolita’s release.
“Usually in difficult negotiations, it’s no, no, no, until it’s yes. We all want what’s best for her,” he said. “This is a whole new level of campaign.”
Lummi Councilman Fred Lane said his tribe considers Lolita family and is willing to work toward her release indefinitely.
“You hear the scientists say she won’t bear (release),” Lane said. “You know what? It’s better to die at home with your family than die in captivity.”