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.

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.

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.

In 1983 he spent three months aboard a research ship based in the Dominican Republic studying humpbacks during mating season. Later that same year Garrett moved to New England, where he lived for ten years working as a tour guide on whale-watching expeditions during the summer months.

In 1993 Free Willy hit the big screen and Garrett returned to Friday Harbor. His sociological musings on orca communities took a dramatic turn. He decided to become a full-time activist.

In the movie a boy named Jessie befriends an orca named Willy. When Jessie discovers an unscrupulous marine-park owner wants to kill the animal to collect insurance, the boy joins forces with a trainer and a park groundskeeper. The three tow the creature to freedom in a specially rigged trailer.

A real-life orca named Keiko starred in the movie. In 1979, at age two, he was captured off the coast of Iceland and then languished for eleven years in a rundown Mexico City aquarium called Reino Aventura. (Adventure Kingdom) There he became steadily more ill until Warner Bros., with Balcomb's help, rescued him. This past September Keiko was sent to Iceland, where trainers are teaching him to again live in the wild. If released, Keiko will become the first captive orca to be reintroduced to the sea.

In the media blitz that followed the film's release, Garrett was often quoted on the orca's living conditions and health. He traveled across the nation for live radio interviews while working part-time at a print shop. In 1994 he even appeared on the TV tabloid show A Current Affair, and talked about Keiko's plight.

Garrett had bigger fish to free when he moved to Miami in 1997. He arrived with a slew of Miami Vice-inspired stereotypes about the city and a $2000-per-month stipend from a Washington group called PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society). Six months later the money ran out. The reason is unclear; PAWS director Kathy Kelley says her group only budgeted for that period. Garrett says he wasn't militant enough for PAWS.

In the year and half since Garrett arrived in South Florida, he's hung thousands of posters, held rallies at Seaquarium, visited at least 30 schools in Miami-Dade County, met with Mayor Alex Penelas, freelanced for numerous publications, and promoted his campaign on the Internet. Garrett even learned HTML code and designed his own Web page. Microsoft representatives even spotted the Website (www.rockisland.com/~tokitae) and redesigned it for free.

Garrett says he is doing everything possible to draw publicity to Lolita's cause, but he admits he chooses his battles. "There isn't full-time work in this," he says. "A lot of what I do is waiting for the right moment. I don't want to be a pest; I'm not constantly on the phone haranguing and harassing people."

Garrett complains about the circus tricks Lolita must perform for food, her isolation, and the fact that she was taken from her family. "Separation from kin is what kills them in captivity," Garrett says. "You can't make up for that even with the best of care."

The Tokitae Foundation has raised about $22,000 since 1995. Most of that money has gone to support Garrett. He pays $425 per month to live in a cramped studio apartment and gets around in a faded-red 1986 Nissan Sentra with no air conditioning or functioning radio.

Still, critics charge that Garrett is milking Lolita for money. "I don't know if he's sacrificed his life in his struggle to free Lolita, or if it's made a life for him," says Seaquarium publicist Seth Gordon. Adds Hertz: "I think he should get a job. The man is doing something because he visualizes an awful lot of money and fame." Seaquarium, it should be noted, raked in about $12 million this past year after paying taxes and rent to the county. Hertz owns a $211,000 home in Coral Gables, a $243,000 condo on Brickell Key, and drives a white Cadillac with leather interior.

The walls of Garrett's apartment are lined with orca posters, childrens' drawings, and collages of Lolita with her family. There are also several batiklike killer-whale wall-hangings and orca calendars. On a windowsill are orca postcards and a photo of Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro with his family. (Munro is one of four Tokitae Foundation board members.) An old, thin, twin-size mattress leans against a wall. Two large cardboard boxes contain files, most of which are orca-related. A laptop computer sits on a plywood desk. Nearby, taped to a wall, a poem titled Imprisoned Too Long serves as a daily reminder of Lolita's confinement: "Captured, trained, torn from her mom, far from her own, imprisoned too long."

It's about 1:00 p.m. when Garrett sits before a tiny white television set and pops in a videotape of Lolita's Spirit in the Water, a 1996 documentary made by an ABC affiliate in Seattle. He points at an image of a Puget Sound whale on the screen and blurts out: "That's J2; she's 86 years old." Then he grabs his orca photo album to verify the claim.

Next Garrett turns off the TV and plays a CD of what he calls an orca "superpod" meeting. Three families gather thrice yearly for a party that lasts 24 hours, he explains. Amid the whistles, clicks, squawks, and bleats, Garrett talks about his job as an orca freedom fighter. "I'm trying to give a whale rights," he maintains. "That's not in most people's vocabulary."

Garrett believes Lolita remembers her life in the wild. He insists she hasn't lost her hunting skills or knowledge of the distinct calls that orcas use to communicate, that she has vivid memories of her home and even her mother.

Garrett describes Lolita in almost human terms; memories of her time in the wild give her hope and keep her alive, he says. "I can't help but wonder how Lolita survives the cramped, featureless space and solitary confinement," he continues. "Maybe it's the way she was raised by her mother, or maybe, like the mysterious human spirit in times of extreme adversity, she has deep resources of faith. Maybe Lolita remembers her family and dreams of going home some day."

But Arthur Hertz, Lolita's keeper, isn't budging. Ken Balcomb admits he probably never will: "I've told Howie I don't want to be pessimistic, but in my view Arthur is never going to talk about letting go of the whale." Howard's response: "I know Hertz wouldn't do it out of the goodness of his heart, but I don't think he'll have any other choice."

In a desperate attempt to gain supporters, Garrett recently joined singer Jimmy Buffett's fan club, the Barefoot Children of Fort Lauderdale. He distributes information at the monthly meetings and talks to whomever will listen. Elton John's personal assistant sent a letter this past May saying the entertainer would add his name to the cause. "Until we get someone like Madonna into it, I'm just not quite sure how to get people's attention anymore," he says in a fit of frustrated laughter.

Walking the streets of Hollywood's Young Circle on a recent day with a beige cloth bag over his shoulder, Garrett hands out flyers to shopkeepers and asks if he can tape up "Free Lolita" posters. Most act interested in Garrett's orca freedom spiel. Some ignore it.

Candy Benvenuto, owner of New Wave Hair Design, is busy cutting hair when Garrett approaches. "Hi, I just came to see if I can leave you these postcards, and ...," Garrett stops short. He holds up a postcard in one hand and a poster in the other. The beautician hasn't even glanced at him. He solemnly turns around and walks out. Says Benvenuto of the encounter: "I was busy. I don't pay attention to solicitors when I'm working."

Yet Garrett has supporters. This past Mother's Day, about 100 protesters gathered in front of Seaquarium and waved picket signs that read "Don't work Lolita to death." Drivers beeped their horns in support as Garrett walked through the crowd with a megaphone chanting: "Hey-hey. Ho-ho. Let Lolita come home." Sandy Taylor, a realtor from Arlington, Virginia, attended the rally during a South Florida visit. Next year she plans on retiring in Florida to be closer to Garrett's cause. "We're not saying throw [Lolita] out in the wild. We're saying let her go when she wants to go," Taylor explains.

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