She was once a wild animal, a predator; part of a family, a pod, a clan. She was magnificent.
On August 8, 1970, when she was 4 years old, she was captured in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island in Washington State. That day, 90 wild orcas were corralled; five drowned, and seven of the young were captured and sold to marine parks in Texas, Florida, France, Japan, Australia, and England. She outlived them all by decades.
The capture was sensational and brutish: a round-up, a speed boat, a spotting plane, explosives, tangled nets, drowned calves, and screaming orca mothers. Divers in wetsuits used ropes, lassos, nets, and nooses to separate the ones who would be sold. Trapped, the young orca lifted her white chin and smooth black head out of the water and looked about her like a child lost in a crowd. They lashed thick straps around her torso and pushed her body into a canvas sling that hung down into the water from a boat crane. Six men in flared blue jeans with leather belts and sweat bands, three with bare chests, squatted low on the floating dock with arms extended and heaved against the weight of the orca on a yellow nylon rope.
On the other side of the net, an orca mother watched her calf being taken. She breached, she shrieked, she slapped her tail, she churned the sea. She stayed. The 4-year-old lay still in the sling, her pectoral fins poking out like big useless paws. The men hosed her down. A crane hoisted her up. She called out as they took her from her tribe.
Lolita performed twice a day, seven days a week, for 50 years.
The capture of orcas—also known as killer whales, although they’re members of the dolphin family—was banned in Washington State in 1976. In the years since, we’ve learned a lot about these animals. We’ve learned that the orcas captured in Penn Cove that day were all from the now-endangered Southern Resident population of the Salish Sea, the coastal waters between Washington State and British Columbia. We’ve learned that they live in stable matrilineal family groups: grandmothers, mothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters stay together for life. They travel together. Hunt together. Share food. Wait for each other. Grieve for each other. In 2018, a Southern Resident killer whale mother pushed her dead calf’s body for 17 days and 1,000 miles.
What we’ve learned from science has confirmed what some realized on their own. John Crowe worked as a diver on the captures in 1970. In 1998, at a Penn Cove Capture Commemoration event on Whidbey Island, he wore a denim shirt open at the chest with an orca t-shirt underneath. He had the hands and forearms of someone who works outside, a gray beard that followed his jawline, and unruly eyebrows that held his pained face together. When he spoke, he looked at the floor in front of him. He cleared his throat every so often as he described what happened that day. “When we were loading them from the water onto the truck … the terror … from separation. It’s the worst thing I ever did, that ever happened to me in my life.”
An elementary school-aged girl with red hair pulled back into a ponytail sat cross-legged on the dock in the front row and stared as she listened to the man who captured killer whales. A woman in her 60s leaned against her husband as she wiped tears from her face.
“As soon as the sling left the water, when the whale was no longer in the water, that was the last of the communication. And they knew it.” The orcas turned and swam out of Penn Cove and there are no records of them ever returning.
John Crowe, who passed away in 2015, finished up: “Do you have any questions or do you just want to stand there and watch a grown man cry?”
The young orca lay on a mattress in the back of a truck and was driven to a concrete tank at Pier 56 on the Seattle waterfront. A veterinarian named her Tokitae, which in the language of the Coast Salish people means “nice day, pretty colors.” Tokitae was sold to the Miami Seaquarium in Florida, and she arrived there by sling and crane and truck and plane on Sept. 24, 1970. There, they named her Lolita.
Once trained, she performed every day and executed her commands on cue—fluke waves, fluke slaps, speed runs, slide outs, bow jumps, high-energy jumps, head-in entry jumps, back breaches, trainer rides on belly, trainer rides on back, trainer rides on rostrum.
Orcas travel together. Hunt together. Share food. Wait for each other. Grieve for each other.
In video footage of the Killer Whale Show taken at the Miami Seaquarium in 2013, people begin to gather for the show outside a closed metal roll-up door. A young girl sits on a handrail. A man leans against the wall. A small boy pulls on his mom’s arm. They look like they’re waiting for a bus. Or waiting in line for popcorn. Founded in 1955, the Miami Seaquarium looks a bit like a low-budget motel. The ticket booth seems like a place where you’d line up to buy cotton candy and a token to play duck pond. Inflatable killer whale toys dangle from the ceiling of a gift tent. The white eye markings on the killer whale toys are (incorrectly) shaped like speech bubbles, and there’s no saddle patch under the dorsal fin. There are bright blue T-shirts for sale with cartoon representations of killer whales bursting out of a rainbow splash of tie dye.
A faded wooden sign hangs above the entrance to the show with (another) inaccurate cartoon design of a killer whale. The dorsal fin looks like that of a shark. When the garage door rolls up, people walk through a concrete alleyway that opens out to a dilapidated pool painted blue with bleachers on either side. A lowly coliseum. Lolita is already there. She floats, bobs, and lolls with her rostrum and one eye out of the water like a waterlogged thing that can’t right itself. An anti-climactic main event. The sun glints off her shiny black skin. Two teenage boys who work there have their backs to her as they lean up against the dirty glass of her tank. They are wearing Miami Seaquarium polo shirts and their shorts hang low with the weight of the radios that are clipped to their belts. More people file in and begin to fill the concrete bleachers. Lolita comes to the wall, to the sound of performance: crowds, cameras, music. By this time she had been living in captivity for 43 years.
Two women wearing matching full-body wetsuits appear from behind the scenes carrying Coleman coolers. They announce, with theatrical performance, “Lolita! Our killer whale!” The crowd erupts and drowns out the din of disco music.
Lolita holds her head up obediently in front of the trainer. On command she sinks down. Lolita swims fast around the tank and explodes out of the water. In the video footage, I see the full size of her four-ton body suspended over the tank, and it doesn’t look like she will fit back in. I wince, afraid she will hit her head or her tail flukes against the concrete as she breaches. She performs a slide-out onto a concrete island in the middle of the pool. Lolita gets a dead fish.
On her back with pectoral fins in the air, Lolita propels herself around the periphery of the pool with pumps from her tail to the beat of the 1990s Reel 2 Real hit, “I Like to Move It.” One of the trainers kneels on Lolita’s white chest between her pectoral fins and waves and smiles at the audience while she rides the killer whale around the tank. Lolita gets a dead fish.
People watch, clap, and cheer. Lolita gets another dead fish.
Lolita swims another circuit, this time working her tail to keep her head fully out of the water. The trainer stands on her rostrum as if it were a podium and waves and smiles at the audience and squints against the glare of the sun. Lolita gets a dead fish.
After the performance, a janitor in khaki trousers and a Miami Seaquarium T-shirt picks up plastic soda bottles and sweeps candy wrappers. The garage door rumbles down and Lolita waits for the next show.
In video footage from January 2021, not much had changed. Wetsuit-clad trainers clap their hands to the beat of the 2013 hit “All Night” from the Swedish duo Icona Pop while Lolita performs flips and tail whips in her tank. The people in the concrete bleachers clap and sing along with the lyrics, “We always dreamed about this better life …”
Lolita performed twice a day, seven days a week, for 50 years. For much of that time, people—animal rights groups, orca advocates, the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest, a public growing ever less comfortable with keeping whales and dolphins in captivity—protested her conditions. They organized lawsuits, petitions, and boycotts; sometimes they gathered outside the Seaquarium, carrying signs and making speeches.
In June 2021, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection at the Miami Seaquarium revealed a long list of animal welfare violations. The facility had disregarded veterinary recommendations for Lolita’s care. Details of the inspection were published by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in September 2021: Multiple injuries to her lower jaw from hitting a bulkhead during a show. (She was asked to perform high speed circles and head-first jumps despite the vet’s recommendations to the contrary). Overexertion. Chlorine damage to her eyes. Lesions in her right eye. Dehydration. Inflammation. Malnutrition because her food had been reduced from 160.7 pounds per day to 132.1 pounds per day, and she was sometimes fed poor-quality salmon scraps and rotten capelin. According to the USDA vet, feeding poor-quality or partially decomposed fish can result in illness, compromised immune systems, and even death.
Tokitae’s devotees want a chance to give her a better life.
Late in 2021, the Miami Seaquarium came under new ownership. In February 2022, in compliance with new USDA permits, the new owners retired Lolita from shows. She no longer performs; she has been waiting in her tank while people decide what to do with her. What do you do with an aging four-ton killer whale who is dependent on humans? How do you right a wrong that can never be made right?
The Lummi tribe consider Lolita a relative and call her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. Over the past few years, they have fought to move her to a sanctuary in Washington’s San Juan Islands. In early 2022 they joined a collective of other Lolita advocates, known as Friends of Toki, and in March of that year the Miami Seaquarium’s new owners agreed to work with them. Such an unlikely collaboration had never happened before. With it came possibilities. Her day-to-day care improved. There is open and constructive conversation about her future and, as of March 2023, a mutual commitment to return her to a sanctuary pen in her home waters. For the first time in decades, there is movement in Tokitae’s story.
Repatriation to a sanctuary would set a precedent for captive orcas all over the world. It will also take government approval because the Southern Resident orca population is federally classified as endangered.
And it will take a clean bill of health. Over the past 12 months, Tokitae has suffered from a chronic respiratory infection that needed ongoing treatment with antibiotics. At a conference in December 2022, her care team talked of her the way you talk of a loved one when you don’t know how much time they have left. “Yesterday she had a not-so-great-day. Today she had a good day.” Ten weeks earlier they thought she was going to die. But the February 2023 health assessment reported “optimism.” Her condition was “stable.” Her appetite, energy, and engagement in daily activities was “steady.” She looked “good” clinically. Maybe she lives 10 more years.
Tokitae’s devotees want a chance to give her a better life. A chance to give her dignity and ease. A chance to finally do better by her. Their dream is for her to live out her remaining years in her native habitat where her family members might swim by from time to time and where she might hear the vocalizations—the clicks, squeaks, trills, whistles, and pops—unique to her pod. Will she recognize their calls; will they recognize hers? Will she remember the sounds of her early years the way someone recognizes a language they knew as a child? Will she remember the place where the water is salty? Where waves skirt the rocky shore? Where the currents run strong?
Lead image: Kamira / Shutterstock