Hope for Lolita in Keiko’s successful return to the wild

I read with interest your March 24 editorial asking what to do with captive orcas, “How should be keep a whale.” The question is very timely but some assumptions are questionable.

First, Keiko’s return to his home habitat was a big success. Keiko proved that immersion in native waters after decades of captivity is healthy and therapeutic. He was not returned to his family and could not be adopted by unrelated orcas, so he turned to humans for companionship, not from habituation but from loneliness.

The following is a history of Keiko’s release, available at www.orcanetwork.org/captivity/keikostory.html:

Sept. 9, 1998: As soon as he is immersed, Keiko pumps his flukes to swim clear of the stretcher and immediately dives. He surfaces a full minute later, circling the pool, echo-locating and vocalizing excitedly, as if calling out “Who’s there?” After 10 minutes of energetically exploring his new home he turns to his human friends perched at the pool’s edge. He allows Jen Schorr to scratch him briefly, but seems more interested in the place than the humans. Within 2½ hours Keiko communicates with a pilot whale that swims into his cove. He is visible to tourists only by two telescopes set up across the bay.

Sept. 11, 1998: Bob Ratliffe, executive director of the foundation says that Keiko is vocalizing like he’s never done before — much more than when he was in Oregon.

Sept. 12, 1998: Keiko’s activity level is much higher than it was in Oregon. He begins “porpoising,” coming smoothly out of the water in a continuous, graceful arc to breathe and slipping immediately beneath the surface again. In the past he often stayed at the surface following a breath. Dr. Cornell is visibly moved by Keiko’s response so far. “As a veterinarian, Keiko’s medical supervisor and a human being,” he says, pausing to regain his composure, “it can’t get any better.”

Did Keiko catch fish? Yes.

May, 1997 (At Oregon Coast Aquarium): Keiko’s rehabilitation staff begin introducing live fish into his pool on a regular basis. At first he catches, but does not eat the fish, instead he returns them to the trainers. He soon catches and eats his first fish.

Keiko is finally lesion-free for the first time since 1982. Foundation staff grow optimistic that he can make the next step to Iceland.

June, 1997: Keiko is weighed and tops out at 9,620 pounds — an incredible weight gain of 1,900 pounds in just 18 months. He’s also grown 8 inches longer, to over 21 feet. Foundation staff sets its sights on relocating Keiko to a bay pen in the North Atlantic sometime in 1998.

July, 1997: 2,000 live herring are added to Keiko’s tank. He eats some of them, ignores others, and brings some to his trainers.

Sept. 1, 2002: Keiko, after spending most of the summer free in the North Atlantic, unexpectedly enters Skaalvik, a small Norwegian harbor and interacts with members of the public. According to daily satellite tracking reports, he has traveled a minimum of 870 miles, usually about 50-60 miles a day. He is exhausted and remains stationary for 18 hours.

Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko’s veterinarian since 1996, examines Keiko and finds that: “After 60 days at sea and traveling more than 1,000 miles, Keiko is strong and does not appear to have lost any weight whatsoever. There can no longer be any doubt that Keiko has foraged successfully.”

Prospects are good for Lolita, now at Miami Seaquarium, to one day return to her home waters in Penn Cove. Our organization, Orca Network, includes over 13,000 subscribers to our whale sightings email list, 5,000 more subscribers to our Lolita email list, and over 124,000 readers of our Facebook page. Since 1995 we have conducted a campaign to get Lolita/Tokitae retired after 46 years in an unlawfully undersized tank, so that she can regain her overall health and stamina and thrive in her native habitat. SeaWorld has now acknowledged that orcas don’t thrive in captivity after their 50-year experiment.

The real story is that the era of holding orcas captive for our entertainment is over. Now we must do the compassionate thing for Lolita and rescue her from incarceration in a tiny tub, without company since 1980, and allow her to return to her home and family, where she was born and raised, where she learned to communicate with them and to catch salmon prior to her capture in 1970.

Lolita’s future will be determined at a trial set to begin May 31 in a federal district court in Miami.

Howard Garrett is director of the Orca Network in Freeland.

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