Livin' la Vida Orca

Howard Garrett carries the torch for an aging aquatic entertainer named Lolita

On a steamy Thursday at noon, animal-rights activist Howard Garrett prepares to walk into forbidden territory. He holds a camera and hides behind the flora of a blue Hawaiian shirt and black, hit-man-style shades -- tourist camouflage. Garrett scans his ticket and pushes against the turnstile.

It's been more than two months since the lanky 53-year-old last saw Miami Seaquarium's sensation, Lolita. As Garrett walks toward the orca's stadium home, he becomes noticeably tense and his face turns gravely serious. Garrett enters one of several damp corridors that lead to the grandstands and concrete tank where the 34-year-old female has performed twice daily for almost three decades.

Bleachers packed with sugar-high children surround the murky 60-by-80-foot pool. Everyone's waiting for the show's highlight: a drenching at the flop of Lolita's fin. Twenty feet down in 55-degree water, Lolita rests before her act. The three-ton mammal shares her home with four Pacific white-sided dolphins, but hasn't interacted with another of her kind in more than eighteen years.

As Garrett leans over the pool, Lolita rises from the depths. The massive black blotch grows larger and the whale pops from the water. She bops from side to side, makes a puffing sound through her blowhole, and then sprays Garrett with droplets of water and vapor. Garrett, who has remained unusually quiet during his sojourn, revels in the light shower and mutters, "Oh, do that again, sweetheart. Come on, girl."

For a moment he seems to forget the obstacles that block his dream of allowing Lolita to leap from a limitless ocean. Then the speakers around the whale tank blast upbeat, pop tunes and he snaps back to the scene. Kids sing along with the lyrics: "It's such a good vibration, it's such a sweet sensation...." For the next twenty minutes, Lolita entertains. Garrett leaves Seaquarium a half-hour after the performance concludes. The $20 admission was not wasted, he remarks.

Garrett is director of the Tokitae Foundation and the only remaining full-time fighter in the once-popular battle to free Lolita. Tokitae is the name Lolita's capturers gave her 29 years ago. It means "shimmering water" in the Chinook language, the tongue of Indians who once inhabited the Washington coast where the orca was born.

Garrett advocates Lolita's return to her native waters. He hopes one day to place her in a sea pen where trainers can teach her the foraging skills that she long ago forgot. After completing this training she could return to a community of more than 90 orcas in Puget Sound.

But the campaign has been stalled for years and Garrett is penniless; he's even thought about selling his blood to survive. To make his rent and keep supporters updated, he depends on sporadic donations, fundraisers, T-shirt and bumper-sticker sales, a handful of local businesses who help out with printing costs, and the moral support of Washington State. Garrett holds out hope the Seaquarium will close one day and Lolita will be set free.

Gone are the days when Ocean Drive publisher Jerry Powers spent thousands of dollars to make "Free Lolita" a battle cry among the chic South Beach set. Back then, in 1995, schoolchildren in Washington mounted a letter-writing campaign to free the orca. Mike Lowry and Ralph Munro, then-Washington governor and secretary of state respectively, stood together on a cliff overlooking Puget Sound and begged Seaquarium owners to allow the giant creature to retire as a citizen of their state. Powers even displayed the full-figured girl's picture in his magazine and offered two million dollars to buy Lolita.

The media loved the idea. Dueling columns by the Miami Herald's Carl Hiaasen, and the Seattle Times's Erik Lacitis debated Lolita's liberation. While Hiaasen sneered, Lacitis condemned the Sunshine State: "It's time to tell the gawking tourists that the show is over," he wrote. In the summer of 1997, even Dateline NBC picked up on the Lolita tug of war, playing out the drama on television screens nationwide.

But by the time Garrett moved to Miami later that year, Lolita's liberty bell had been almost muffled. Arthur Hertz, CEO of Wometco, the company that owns Seaquarium, categorically refused the Lolita-lovers' entreaties. "It's not even up for discussion," Hertz responded. "Lolita's family is here at the Seaquarium. That whale gets better medical treatment than any human. She's treated very well."

Yet Garrett preached his philosophy whenever and wherever he could. In 1997 he stood before the village council of Key Biscayne and proposed that its members team up with him to limit Seaquarium's growth. (Key residents have for years blocked Seaquarium expansion, fearing a proposed $70 million project would create traffic along the Rickenbacker Causeway, their only way on and off the island.)

In 1998 Garrett authored a 32-page report on the Lolita problem, then held a press conference and distributed the document to local TV stations. With the help of Powers and Ocean Drive, Garrett attracted 300 people to a benefit at South Beach's stylish Albion Hotel, but somehow managed to raise only $250. Twice in two years he's slipped into Seaquarium with foreign TV crews and filmmakers.

Just this past month he was featured in a National Enquirer article complete with a "help free Lolita" coupon that encouraged readers to get involved. According to Enquirer reporter Wayne Grover, the publication received about 15,000 responses urging the orca's release. All have been forwarded to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. The senator's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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