Along the coast of Washington State, Southern Resident killer whales hunt food together in pods. Some torpedo out of the water, unleashing massive splashes as they fall back into the blue. Though the whales are the apex predators of these waters, where they are known to live more than 100 years, there are fewer than 80 of these orcas left in the world.
During the 1960s and '70s, nearly an entire generation of orca juveniles were corralled, separated from their protective mothers, and sent to oceanariums across the United States. According to NOAA Fisheries, this capture of nearly 50 Southern Residents had a direct impact on the wild pod's population. Today the animals are classified as endangered.
All but one of those captured orcas have died in tanks where they performed tricks for park guests. Miami Seaquarium's Lolita, originally named "Tokitae" (Coast Salish for "sparkling waters"), is the last surviving Southern Resident killer whale in captivity. When she arrived at the marine park in 1970, Hugo, a male orca at the Seaquarium, kept her company. Reportedly, they would communicate with each other through a language of clicks and whistles.
In the wild, it is not uncommon to hear orcas use this mysterious language to communicate with one another while they play and swim for miles.
However, in 1980, Hugo died after injuring himself along the walls of the tank where Lolita still swims. His remains rest in a Miami-Dade landfill.
Fearing Lolita will suffer the same fate, animal activists have called for her retirement from entertaining, particularly because she lives in the smallest orca tank in the nation, an enclosure that even government agencies cannot seem to agree meets federal space requirements to house a killer whale.
Even if the tank unquestionably met the minimum space standards, activists say the Animal Welfare Act is an artifact of the '60s, a time when many people still did not know much about orcas — particularly that they swim huge stretches each day. Whales travel about the distance between Miami and Naples.
The issue of her captivity has become headline news around the world. Since the documentary Blackfish was released in 2013, the chorus of activists urging Lolita's retirement from being exhibited at the Seaquarium has grown louder. Now the choir includes many local celebrities. In 2015, model Daisy Fuentes, former Deco Drive host Louis Aguirre, and billionaire real-estate developer Jorge Pérez were among locals who publicly condemned the Seaquarium's continued captivity of "sweet" Lolita in the controversial tank.
The growing list of celebrities now includes Jessica Biel, Wilmer Valderrama, and Bob Barker, who have all spoken out against the Seaquarium, calling it an "abusement park" for holding Lolita and other marine mammals in captivity.
"It’s clear to me that a life of confinement is no life at all for captive orcas and other marine mammals held at parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium," actor Jason Biggs tells New Times. "Until these companies stop enslaving animals for corporate profit, they won’t see me or my family in their dwindling crowds."
Another star taking a stand against the local marine park is the Latina actor Kate del Castillo. This week, she will be appearing in a PETA ad aimed at raising awareness of Lolita's "tragic" situation. Just as summer begins, her message urges people to boycott the Seaquarium.
"Lolita’s story is particularly tragic and poignant to me because I come from a tight-knit family. And so does she. Orca families spend their entire lives together. Lolita should have spent her life with her mother and aunts and siblings. But instead, she has spent 46 long and totally miserable years stuck inside the world’s smallest orca tank at the Miami Seaquarium," del Castillo said in a statement. "She is there right now, doing the only thing she can do: float in place or swim in a tiny circle, never to have the company of another orca."
According to PETA, Lolita's enclosure is "only as deep as Lolita is long." PETA also claims she is raked by dolphins and given a wide range of drugs, from steroids to narcotics to antacids. The group promotes a plan to move Lolita to a sea sanctuary in her home waters. "All the Seaquarium has to do is agree to retire her there," the group said in a statement.
However, Seaquarium executives have stated for years — decades, actually — that they will not release Lolita, stating the orca is "thriving" in the tank. As of this spring, the marine park's statement on such a move has been a firm no.
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"There is no scientific evidence that the approximately 50-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved from her home at Miami Seaquarium to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest," Andrew Hertz, the overseerer of the park, told New Times this spring. "It would be reckless and cruel to jeopardize Lolita’s health and safety by moving her from her home of 46 years. Miami Seaquarium is not willing to experiment with her life in order to appease a fringe group. These individuals will never be satisfied with the care she receives. Lolita is part of the Miami Seaquarium family and is as active and healthy as ever, a true testament to her care."
It could be argued that sticking Tokitae in the tank to begin with was an experiment, particularly at a time when the public didn't know as much about orcas.
PETA has filed a lawsuit that challenges the marine park's treatment of Lolita. The case, which is soon poised to be heard in the Eleventh Circuit, alleges that Lolita, as a federally recognized endangered animal, has unlawful psychological injuries, such as not being able to socialize with other orcas or swim "meaningful distances."