Livin' la Vida Orca

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

Lolita remains trapped in a tank at Seaquarium that some people, including Russ Rector, director of Fort Lauderdale's Dolphin Freedom Foundation, consider too small. She won't be there forever, Garrett says. "There's a very good chance the Seaquarium will soon go out of business. They're gonna have to liquidate their assets, Lolita being the biggest one. I don't think other marine parks will take her and that's where I come in."

Seaquarium's owner, Wometco, is a Miami-based company that was incorporated in 1926 by entrepreneurs Mitchell Wolfson and Sidney Meyers. The pair opened the city's first movie theater, the Capitol. During the years that followed, Wometco established cinemas from Alaska to the Caribbean. (Wometco is an acronym for Wolfson-Meyers Theater Company.) In 1949 Wolfson and Meyers became South Florida television pioneers by founding WTVJ-TV (Channel 4). Now owned by NBC, WTVJ was the first independent TV station south of Atlanta.

In 1960 Wometco bought Seaquarium from its developers, the Marine Exhibition Corporation. The 38-acre park that is Miami's answer to Orlando's Sea World was among the nation's first outdoor aquariums when completed in 1955. Originally the $2.3 million Miami Seaquarium was to be built near Haulover inlet, but then-County Commissioner Charles Crandon convinced developers to erect it on Virginia Key.

Not long after Wometco purchased Seaquarium, the park made the national stage, when segments of the Sixties television series Flipper were shot there. At Seaquarium's center is the Flipper lagoon, which often appeared on the show. Today Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins perform there.

In 1968, just four years after the first orca was captured and displayed in a Seattle marine park, Seaquarium purchased Hugo, a male from Puget Sound. Two years later Seaquarium bought Hugo a bride and named her Lolita. Dateline NBC described Lolita's capture as a rather barbaric event: Already fourteen feet long at six years old, she was one of seven orcas captured on August 7, 1970. Fishermen used high-speed boats, explosives, and planes to herd the killer whales into a shallow bay where mothers were pushed away from their babies and nets were tossed overboard to corral twelve orcas. Amid the chaos five of the mammals died.

That's just one side of the story, Arthur Hertz comments. "I wasn't there when Lolita was captured, but it was done by professional people in the business of handling the animal."

When Lolita and Hugo first got together, they costarred in a Seaquarium show called Can a Handsome Boy Killer Whale Find Love in Miami? The title was a reflection of owners' hopes that the two would soon conceive a baby orca. But Lolita and Hugo never reproduced and Seaquarium was left without much-coveted offspring. Hugo died in 1980 from an aneurysm.

The Wometco empire, which by then included 120 companies and grossed $520 million per year, unraveled shortly after the death of founder Mitchell Wolfson in 1983. The following year Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., a Wall Street firm known for breaking up conglomerates and selling off the pieces, bought Wometco for a billion dollars.

Enter Arthur Hertz, who had worked for Wometco since 1956, a year after he graduated from the University of Miami with a business degree. The ambitious young man had progressed from accountant to chief operating officer. In 1985 Hertz scraped together $60 million of mostly borrowed money and purchased many of Wometco's entertainment assets from KKR. Three years later he bought rights to the Wometco name and became chairman and CEO of Wometco Enterprises, Inc. But Hertz's company is a minuscule version of the original Wometco; besides Seaquarium, it owns only a chain of Baskin-Robbins ice-cream stores in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, and a game-room business in Virginia. The former theater company depends on whale theatrics to stay afloat.

Although orcas are sometimes called killer whales, they aren't whales at all. They are members of the dolphin family, which generally feed on salmon and squid. Black and white in color, with the sharp vision of a cat, they have also been known to eat seals. The 18- to 32-foot-long mammals are part of a 55-million-year-old cetacean line that inhabits virtually all parts of the ocean, from the poles to the equator. Scientists don't know the total number of orcas, but they are certain the species is not in imminent danger of extinction, according to Raymond Tarpley, an assistant professor of marine mammal anatomy at Texas A&M University.

Orca societies are organized along matriarchal lines. In other words offspring never leave their mother's side. Families known as pods, consist of four or more generations. Each clan has a unique call that sounds something like the squealing brakes of bus. Killer whales can dive up to 500 feet deep and travel 100 miles per day. Although the average lifespan of a female orcinus orca is 50 years, they have been known to reach their 80s. (Males normally live about 30 years, and some have made it to age 50.) Their brains, which weigh about six kilos, are four to five times larger than the human cerebrum. Tarpley says there is no conclusive evidence that brain size is related to memory retention.

The first show-biz-bound orca was captured in 1965 in Canadian waters. Ted Griffin, then-owner of a small waterfront aquarium in downtown Seattle, Washington, purchased the animal for $8000 and named it Namu. Before Griffin set out to prove man's dominance over the beast, killer whales were thought to be mindless, murderous machines.

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