Livin' la Vida Orca

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

Griffin invited the media and sold hundreds of tickets to Namu's public debut in August 1965. He dove into a sea pen tied to Pier 56 and swam with the creature. The memorable performance changed the orca's public image from violent to cute and lovable. Namu's performing career was short-lived. He died after eleven months in captivity.

Orca captures in Puget Sound continued for more than ten years after the Namu experiment. Sea World was a major purchaser, garnering eight killer whales between 1965 and 1974. The Orlando attraction's superstar, Shamu, whose name means "friend of Namu," was introduced in 1965. (There has been more than one Shamu; the moniker has been passed on from orca to orca.) Other orca purchasers hailed from Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In all, 45 were captured during the period.

In 1976 Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro filed a lawsuit that claimed Sea World had violated the terms of its trapping permit. The result: A federal judge banned the park from capturing orcas in the Salish Sea, which encompasses approximately 200 miles of Washington's inland waterways that include Puget Sound. While other marine parks still can seek permits to capture orcas there, politics have made securing one next to impossible. Killer whales in the Pacific Northwest have remained untouchable for years.

Also in 1976 the National Marine Fisheries Service gave researcher Ken Balcomb a one-year contract to determine the orca population in greater Puget Sound. Balcomb, Howard Garrett's half-brother and director of the Center for Whale Research on Washington's San Juan Island, drew a stunning conclusion: Numbers had fallen from between 100 and 110 to about 70. Worse, the majority of survivors were adults, so procreation was limited.

Before her capture Lolita was a member of a group of orcas that scientists call the southern resident community, which resides in the Pacific Northwest. The northern resident community occupies Canadian waters. Lolita's clan, which is composed of the J, K, and L pods, has been plying the inland waters of Puget Sound and Georgia Strait for millennia.

Lolita has overcome the odds. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service's 1999 marine-mammal inventory, 32 orcas survived an average of only nine years after capture. Lolita has lasted almost 29 years.

These days Lolita is the last Puget Sound orca in captivity. By 1987 all of the others had died in aquariums. That makes Lolita the oldest performing American orca living in the smallest and oldest tank in the United States.

While Arthur Hertz was busy climbing the corporate ladder at Wometco, Howard Garrett was a free-spirited hippie who avoided the draft, traveled incessantly, and worked odd jobs. It was the 1993 movie Free Willy that turned him into a full-fledged activist.

Garrett studied sociology at the University of New Mexico between 1963 and 1965, then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. He didn't finish his degree. "There were too many distractions during that time," he says, laughing. In 1967 he left the country to avoid the draft and spent the next five years working on dairy farms in Canada, Scotland, and Germany.

He returned to New Mexico in 1972 and joined with two friends to buy 50 acres of desolate agricultural land in Ojo Feliz, a small town of 75 inhabitants located 150 miles north of Albuquerque. The trio planned to build adobe houses and live in a commune-type setting. In 1973 he married. A year later his wife gave birth to their son; soon after, they separated. (They divorced in 1977.) The commune flopped, but Garrett, who still owns one-third of the tract, stayed in New Mexico and worked for a small logging firm. Then he floated around the Southwest for a few years.

A turning point arrived in 1976. Garrett was living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, working in a bookstore and making leather moccasins, when he decided to visit Balcomb in the San Juans. "I was just there to visit and to have a little adventure," he recalls.

When Garrett saw an orca for the first time, it was more than just a summer fling: It was the beginning of an intense love affair. He drove a nineteen-foot Boston Whaler, as Balcomb shot photos of dorsal fins and saddle patches. (The saddle patch is an area surrounding the fin used to identify individuals.) Garrett stayed in Washington for three days. One particular event that he remembers: Two orcas gave a baby harbor porpoise a ride by swimming close to one another as the infant fit in between them. The pair even flipped the porpoise into the air a few times. "At first I just felt the exhilaration of seeing their grace and power, but then I felt like I was on another planet," he says.

Garrett returned to Colorado and completed his bachelor's degree in sociology in 1980 while working the graveyard shift at a crisis hotline. He also volunteered as an orderly in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. "Those were long days, but I was excited about being in school," recalls Garrett.

After Garrett graduated Balcomb recruited him to work at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. (Balcomb had founded the museum in 1979.) Garrett welcomed the opportunity. "Once I got there, I was immediately surrounded by whale-heads," he recalls. Garrett began working as the museum's administrator and editing a magazine called Cetus, named after a constellation that resembles a whale's shape. Balcomb continued studying orca demographics. During a three-year stay, Garrett learned that orcas relate to one another in a sophisticated fashion. About a year before Garrett left San Juan Island, Balcomb remembers Garrett watching the mammals from the bow of a boat. "It was like he was gonna go with them. He was captivated," he says. But Garrett's attention turned to other whales.

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