Free Lolita!

Meet the 20-foot wild-born orca who has lived for more than 40 years in an 80-foot tank.
Lolita in 2011 at Miami Seaquarium | Credit: FELIPE ODUARDO SIERRA/FLICKR
Lolita in 2011 at Miami Seaquarium | Credit: FELIPE ODUARDO SIERRA/FLICKR

When you first enter the stadium at Miami Seaquarium to see the killer whale Lolita, you can walk up to the railing and peek into her home. And it is there that you are left with the indelible impression that this 50-year-old, 80-foot-long concrete tank, chopped up by a big concrete island in the middle, is way too small for a 20-foot, four-ton orca. And yet she's been living here for more than 40 years.

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Sometimes Lolita herself will come up to you while you stand there. She did so when, a couple of months ago, I arrived early for her second show of the day. She swam up and looked directly at me, then rolled her head around, allowing me to take photographs almost as if she were posing.

After awhile I stopped shooting and just stood there at the railing, watching her watching me. Soon I found myself overwhelmed by a powerful sense of empathy. She just looked back.

A Brazilian man sidled up next to me and we began chatting. I told him Lolita was about 47 years old and had been in this very tank for nearly 44 years. He did a double take. “Really? Isn't this tiny for an animal this big?” I smiled and nodded in quiet agreement.

The marine-park industry has been on high alert since last summer, when the documentary “Blackfish” reignited a long-dormant debate: Is it ethical to keep large, wild-born killer whales in captivity?

For many filmgoers, the answer was a resounding “No.” The evidence the film presents against captivity is scientifically and morally persuasive. But many people who haven't seen the film come away with the same abiding impression after watching orcas in pools at SeaWorld (in Orlando, San Antonio, or San Diego) or at the Miami Seaquarium — that there is something deeply not right about keeping such large, magnificent, and highly intelligent animals in such small and sterile enclosures.

The film, one of the most-watched documentaries of the year, sparked protests. Bands canceled performances at marine parks. The filmmakers at Disney's Pixar even altered the aquarium-friendly ending of their upcoming “Finding Dory” (the sequel to “Finding Nemo”) after viewing the documentary.

The newly public stock of SeaWorld — the marine-park chain at the center of “Blackfish” — has struggled for months.

“Blackfish” suggests that wild-born captives should be returned to the wild, but the film focuses on the story of Tilikum, the huge SeaWorld male who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2011. And Tilikum is at best a problematic candidate for release because he has been so damaged, both physically and mentally, by captivity.

Among the small remaining pool of wild-born captives, it is actually Lolita, I discovered, who has the best hope for rehabilitation and return to the wild.

Lolita's case is remarkable, in part because she is a remarkable whale. She is the last surviving orca from among dozens taken from the Puget Sound in the 1960s and '70s — a brutal episode that provided the foundation for what is now a multibillion-dollar marine-park industry centered around captive-orca shows. Scientists not only have been able to identify her home pod, crucial for a successful reintroduction; they continue to observe its movements every year. Her presumed mother — an 86-year-old matriarch named Ocean Sun, or L-25 — is still alive, along with several siblings and extended family members.

These wild orcas — known collectively as the Southern Resident population, so called because they frequent the waters of the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound — are the only officially endangered orca population in the world, numbering just over 80. Locals have given her a Salish name — Tokitae — that is so popular it was voted as the name for a new state ferry. And for the past 20 years or so, there has been a campaign by local whale activists to return Lolita to her native waters.

Though her case has languished for years, a recent decision by federal regulators could force a reevaluation of whether Lolita may remain in captivity in Miami. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a unit of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that oversees endangered-species designation for marine mammals, had previously excluded captive orcas when it listed the Southern Residents as protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. But NOAA reversed that position on Jan. 24 and announced that it would list Lolita as a member of the Southern Residents, entitling her to endangered-species protections.

It was a provocative ruling, and no one yet fully understands its consequences. Members of endangered species are protected from “harmful imprisonment,” so the decision could have ramifications for many captive species. It will certainly have ramifications for Lolita.

Still, NOAA has, over the years, maintained in its rulings that releasing a whale back into the wild could harm both the whale and the endangered population, and has been disinclined to support efforts to return Lolita. The January finding specified that NOAA would consider merely returning Lolita to the wild and walking away to be “a violation of the Endangered Species Act.” Regional NOAA administrator Lynne Barre said the agency was awaiting public comment before deciding exactly what direction they would take in assessing the implications of the decision for Lolita — including what kind of protections she might be granted.

Barre said the decision was part of a broader trend within federal agencies to rethink the handling of endangered species of animals. “We won't really have an answer to those kinds of questions until we do a full analysis,” she said. Yet it is hard to imagine that NMFS will not now take up the question of whether Lolita's current conditions of captivity are harming her. And that will get to the heart of the problem.

Lolita's case is especially striking because of the tiny size of her enclosure — reportedly the smallest orca pool in North America. The owner cannot make substantial improvements because of the park's location on the tiny island town of Key Biscayne, where city planners are adamantly opposed to any expansion of the park. At the same time, it has become apparent that no other captive-orca facilities are interested in adding Lolita to their collections.

So it is Lolita, more than any other captive orca, who offers a test case for the big question that “Blackfish” posed: Why not return wild-born orcas to their native waters and pods?

Of the 52 killer whales in captivity at various marine parks around the world (including seven recently captured in Russian waters), only 20 were born in the wild. Not even the most fervent whale advocates propose releasing captive-born orcas into the wild — though they would argue for improving their living conditions. But keeping wild orcas in concrete pools, they argue, is simply cruel.

Of course no reintroduction to the wild is simple. The “Free Willy” fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is a complex operation that requires many layers of research, beginning with identifying any wild orca's natal pod and its location, and a deep-seated knowledge of how to physically care for the animals. Moreover, captive whales become accustomed to human contact and may have real difficulty separating from humans as a source of food, and even for their social needs. (For Lolita this problem is acute, because she has been in captivity for such a long time.) Captive whales could also carry diseases with them, which would threaten wild animals. And most captive orcas have multiple dental cavities that require constant maintenance, making it even more difficult to expect them to survive in the wild.

The marine-park industry remains adamant that none of these 20 wild-born captives should be returned to the wild. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks asserts (as it has for years) that “to experts concerned about the risks to which release exposes both the individual animal and the wild population, the issue is a simple one. Without a compelling conservation need such as sustaining a vulnerable species, release may be neither a reasoned approach nor a caring decision.”

Yet Lolita remains a superb candidate for release — despite the incredible length of time she has been in captivity. (Only SeaWorld's Corky, at the San Diego facility, has lived longer in a tank.) Her teeth are nearly perfect, and her overall health appears to be stable and strong. It is hard to find any whale scientists or naturalists familiar with her conditions, aside from those within the marine-park industry, who aren't appalled by the tiny size of her enclosure. Most critically, her home pod is well known and can be readily located. Her capture in Penn Cove in 1970 was well documented; indeed, it was vividly portrayed in “Blackfish,” part of a horrific episode in which five orcas were needlessly killed.

Lolita still uses the signature calls of the L-pod orcas in her tank in Miami. When an NBC reporter played recordings of Southern-Resident vocalizations for her in 1996, she responded strongly — raising her head above water and peering about.

“When I heard the Lolita story I imagined how amazing it'd be to bring her back to her mother decades after her capture,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of “Blackfish,” told Salon. “This singular, feasible event could catapult us into such a dignified direction. We owe this species big time. And we could start with her.”

The average female orca, like Lolita, is about 20 feet long and weighs about 7,000 pounds; the widest part of her pool, at 80 feet, only lets her swim a few body lengths, and indeed she crosses its distance with two quick flicks of her flukes. With her family in the wild, she would swim more than a hundred miles per day or more. But this is only the most obvious limitation of her captivity.

Orcas in the wild are highly social animals, gregarious and playful, whose world revolves around their family pods. They also are complex, large-brained creatures with sophisticated sensory capacities, such as echolocation. Holding one permanently in a plain concrete pool is akin to forcing a human to live permanently in a plain white cell.

During the first years of her life, Lolita was a typical Puget Sound “Southern Resident” orca: feeding on wild salmon, playing with her family, following her mother's lead as her native “L” pod swam through its home waters.

In 1970, when she was probably 3 or 4 years old, Lolita was among a large clan of nearly 100 orcas driven into a Whidbey Island cove by Sea World captors known as “orca cowboys.” Five orcas drowned in the raid, their corpses slit open and weighted down with chains to hide the evidence. As the young orcas' family members gathered in the waters outside the capture site and vocalized to the whales inside, the captors selected seven whales to sell to various marine parks around the world and proceeded to lasso them, wrestle them into slings, and lift them out. The Miami Seaquarium bought the young whale and named her Lolita.

Since then, her life has been a routine of confinement in a noisy tank that is 30 percent smaller than the tiny Mexico City pool from which millions of school kids “rescued” Keiko, the real-life star of the 1993 megahit Free Willy. For the first 10 years, she had the companionship of Hugo, another Southern Resident orca, but since his death in 1980 (he died of an aneurysm after years of bashing his head on the walls of the pool where Lolita still lives), Lolita has been alone in the tank with only the companionship of dolphins and her human trainers.

Lolita is now 47 years old. In the wild, females typically live between 50 and 60 years, sometimes as long as 90. (There is a Southern Resident whale named “Granny,” the matriarch of the J pod, whose age is estimated to be over 100.) In captivity, whale activists and scientists say, the average lifespan of an orca is 8.5 years (a figure disputed by the industry — somewhat dubiously, since their data sample is skewed by limiting it only to SeaWorld orcas and restricting the timespan to only the past 15 years). Of the 130 or so wild whales that have been captured since 1961, only 13 remain alive today.

Lolita is the last remaining orca among those taken during the 11 years that Southern Residents were captured in Puget Sound. The practice ended with a lawsuit filed by the State of Washington against SeaWorld in 1975. That case was filed by the state's attorney general after a particularly egregious capture involving explosives occurred within view of the state capitol and was witnessed by several high-ranking state officials from a nearby boat. They demanded that SeaWorld cease capture operations within state waters; eventually, the case was settled out of court, with SeaWorld releasing the just-captured orcas from their sea pen and agreeing not to return.

Those 11 years of captures gave birth to captive-orca displays like those at SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium and removed 47 whales from the Southern Resident population, more than a third of the total. The population has never fully recovered; nearly a whole generation of reproduction was represented in the whales captured and killed.

Ken Balcomb, a veteran cetologist and head of the San Juan Island, Wash.-based Center for Whale Research, has led the effort to return Lolita to her native waters — though that may not necessarily mean setting her entirely free. The plan he has prepared for Lolita entails simply placing her in a sea pen in Kanaka Bay, on the western side of San Juan Island, where she can continue to receive human care for as long as necessary. But it also presents an opportunity for her to come into contact with her natal pod — the L pod — whose members frequent those waters in the summertime.

“We propose to retire her to a sea pen here in the San Juans, where she can at least live out her days in a natural environment,” he told me. “And if she establishes contact with her family, and shows an inclination and ability to hunt and roam free, then we may choose to reunite her with her family. But that's far from a given.”

Balcomb's life's work has been largely devoted to documenting and monitoring the 80 to 90 remaining Southern Residents, who regularly visit the waters of the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. They are perhaps the most thoroughly studied wild cetacean population in the world. Among his many accomplishments, the chief has been maintaining a running annual census of the Southern Residents for the past 40 years, something that's done by collecting photos and identifying them by their unique dorsal-fin features and the white saddle patches behind those dorsals, which are each uniquely shaped, like a fingerprint.

Orcas' unique social structure is a key to understanding the challenges and opportunities of Lolita's dilemma. These whales, which are in fact a species of dolphin, organize along matriarchal lines and speak in distinctive dialects. They also show indications of what whale scientists call being “culturally rigid” — they communicate primarily with calls specific to their native pods, do not intermingle with unfamiliar whale populations and are highly selective about what they eat. (Chinook salmon comprises about 90 percent of the Southern Resident diet). Balcomb and his colleagues would find a great deal to study if Lolita at least reestablished contact with her family in the wild — about orca social strictures, mores and memories.

A twist in Lolita's story developed in January, when the Miami Herald reported that the Seaquarium was in negotiations to sell its facility — and presumably all of its animals — to Palace Entertainment, a California-based amusement-park business, whose Spanish parent company, Parques Reunidos, owns a marine park in Antibes, France. On Friday, the completion of the sale was announced. Whether that means she could end up elsewhere is anyone's guess. Hertz told the Herald that Lolita was not going anywhere:  “Obviously, Lolita is a proud ambassador for her species here at the park,” he said. “Nothing is going to change with her in the short run as far as her status here at the park or her stadium.”

In addition to the NOAA/NMFS ruling on her eligibility as a member of a protected population, Lolita is also at the center of another federal case — a lawsuit against the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the Department of Agriculture. The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of animal-rights groups, seeks to force APHIS to enforce regulations regarding the size of enclosures for cetaceans when it comes to licensing Miami Seaquarium; for the past 30 years, the plaintiffs contend, APHIS has continued to relicense the facility even though it is in violation of APHIS rules. At issue is Lolita's pool — or more specifically, the 20-foot concrete island near the center of the pool, which provides a platform on which her trainers can stand during shows, and onto which Lolita slides and poses at the end of her performances.

APHIS regulations require pools containing orcas to have a “minimum horizontal dimension” (MHD) of at least 48 feet, yet the distance from the island to the pool's edge is only 35 feet.

APHIS officials — noting that nothing in the regulations explicitly prohibits such a structure — have given the island a waiver, asserting that “the platform does not hinder Lolita's ability to move about freely.” The plaintiffs now await an initial hearing in federal court in Miami. Emails from APHIS officials obtained as part of the legal proceedings and various FOIA requests have revealed a contemptuous attitude toward the activists seeking to free Lolita by APHIS officials, and a strong bias toward the Seaquarium.

In one of the memos, APHIS' chief marine-mammal scientist, Barbara Kohn, sneers at the people who have been writing her letters: “It is true the issue will continue, since most parties that contact us don't really care what the facts are … 22 years and counting since the pool was measured and we found it in compliance,” she tells one of her APHIS colleagues. “Why let facts, and the idea that Lolita is doing well in the pool, stand in the way of the activists' stance?”

APHIS officials declined to comment, since the issue remains under litigation.

Much of the debate over killer whales in captivity, over many years, has been inspired by movies. And movies don't necessarily make for the best science.

In the 1990s, the fictitious film “Free Willy” inspired a fund-raising effort, fueled by millions of schoolkids, to rescue the star of that film, an Icelandic orca named Keiko, from his tiny tank. But unlike the movie — in which “Willy” simply made a miraculous leap over a breakwater to freedom — Keiko's return was long, difficult, expensive — and a failure.

It cost millions of dollars to rehabilitate Keiko, beginning with moving him from his tiny pool in Mexico City to a large new pool built especially for him at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. After three years there, and another five in a sea pen off Icelandic waters, he was allowed to go free, at first with a large pod of Atlantic orcas who were not his family but with whom he had begun socializing; eventually, he set off on his own apart from those whales. He wandered to a fjord in Norway, where he resumed human contact with his team of handlers. Eventually, in late 2003, he contracted a lung virus and died.

With Keiko's death, the idea of freeing captive orcas lost momentum. Since then, defenders of orca captivity have often pointed to Keiko as proof that freeing these creatures is little more than a childish fantasy that can cost the animals their lives.

The scientists who study whales, however, say Keiko's story simply demonstrates how not to return an orca to the wild. They say that in the wild, orcas are highly social animals, and hunters; their ability to remain with their familial pods is the key to their survival. Failing to reunite Keiko with his pod likely doomed any hopes for his survival.

According to Ken Balcomb, the crew overseeing Keiko's release — dominated by former Sea World staffers — did not conduct the necessary research to identify Keiko's home pod and give him a chance to reunite with them. Balcomb says he proposed such a study in the late 1990s and was turned away by the Keiko Project's then-overseers; since then, there has been more scientific study of the Icelandic orcas, but no one has yet attempted a complete photo-ID census. Other reports from observers at the Icelandic facility suggest that Keiko's rehabilitation team was reluctant and slow to sever his contact with humans, so that when he was released into the wild without contact with his home pod, it was inevitable that he would eventually seek out human contact.

Colin Baird, Keiko's trainer in Iceland and the man who oversaw his release, told me that there was some data collected in Iceland in an effort to ascertain Keiko's home pod, but the icy and rough-sea conditions around Iceland are such that creating a full-photo census of the population would have taken years if not decades. A photo census would have helped researchers identify the pod he was with at the time of his capture; along with acoustic call identification, it would have then been possible to ensure that Keiko was in waters actually frequented by that home pod. Without the identification, it was a blind crapshoot, a vague hope that his family might be among the whales who came by his pen. (There still has not been a single dedicated effort to collecting a census of North Atlantic orcas, though a collaborative effort called the North Atlantic Killer Whale ID Project has been slowly gathering the data for one.)

And so, according to Baird, Keiko's team decided to see if he could simply unite with another resident orca pod, as he eventually did. But it was not a permanent connection, and after several weeks in their company he eventually made his way alone to Norway, where he again came under human care.

Whale scientists, notably Paul Spong of OrcaLab, point to a case where a captive whale was returned successfully to the wild: Springer, a young whale who was briefly captured in 2002 after she showed up at docks in the southern Puget Sound and began playing with boats and socializing with humans. Springer was held in a sea pen where she could communicate with her family. Once she indicated a desire to rejoin them, she was reunited with her pod.

The Springer story is a special success: She recently gave birth to her first calf.

After Keiko's death, however, the issue of orca captivity mostly receded to the back burner — until “Blackfish” was released. Its impact has been remarkable. The film drew critical acclaim and was one of the year's most popular documentaries at the box office, earning over $2 million, and it dominated ratings when it aired on CNN in prime time in November. As a result, it has provoked a fresh conversation about the indefinite confinement of large intelligent mammals.

Though the star of “Blackfish,” Tilikum, is an unlikely candidate for reintroduction into the wild, there are a number of other candidates for release besides Lolita. Next up would be Morgan, a young female orca held at Loro Parque in the Antilles, and herself the object of considerable controversy (she was separated from her family and found emaciated in the Netherlands and rescued in January 2010, with the proviso that she not be put on public display, a promise her rescuers then ignored). Last fall, John Ford, a Canadian scientist who specializes in orca acoustics, identified Morgan's home pod through acoustic identification (Ford matched up recorded calls gathered by the NAKID project with the calls she made in her tank), but the precise whereabouts of that pod have not been ascertained. Another prime candidate for return to the wild — Kshamenk, a mammal-eating orca held in a tiny pool in Argentina — was netted on a beach in 1992, in an area frequented by his home pod, and scientists who study that population also believe he could be easily reunited with his family.

More recently, just last summer, seven killer whales were captured by a Russian company in the Sea of Okhotsk, northeast of Japan, dramatically increasing the list of captive orcas. Two of those whales were reportedly scheduled for public display at a new aquarium in Sochi, but that plan was postponed. At present, the fate of the whole group of whales is unknown, though there has been speculation in the Chinese press that they could wind up at new marine parks in China. Whale activists are demanding the release of all seven orcas, since it is believed their natal pods could be readily identified and located.

And then there's Corky, the longest-lived captive, taken in 1969 from the Northern Resident population near northern Vancouver Island. Again, her home pod is well known and easily locatable, and whale scientist Paul Spong of British Columbia's OrcaLab has a well-developed plan for her return to the wild, beginning with a sea pen. But as a SeaWorld property, there is little likelihood she will be leaving San Diego anytime soon.

Still, the best candidate right now, according to most advocates, is Lolita. Howard Garrett, whose Orca Network is part of the APHIS lawsuit and who happens to be Balcomb's half-brother, has been running a campaign to “Free Lolita” since the mid-1990s. “If anything, we're seeing more energy now than we ever have,” Garrett told me recently, acknowledging the role “Blackfish” (in which he appears) has played in that: “When it's placed in front of your eyes like that, people instinctively understand that it's wrong. These animals do not deserve these prisons.”

Garrett contends that Lolita is the logical whale to be a pioneer because scientists not only know her family pod's identity and habits, they know that her mother and siblings remain alive. He concedes that her age makes her a risk. But he also believes the amazing resilience she has demonstrated by remaining alive in a tiny pool for over 40 years shows Lolita has the requisite will to live.

“She's the one,” Garrett says. “She deserves to get out of that tank in Miami. She has the strength to do this. She's proven that.”

Arthur Hertz is the president of Wometco, the holding company that owns the Seaquarium and the rights to Lolita. Hertz doesn't talk to the press. His PR firm, however, responded to queries from Salon with a statement: “Moving Lolita in any way, whether to a new pool, a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be an experiment. And it is a risk with her life that we are not willing to take. There is no scientific evidence that the 48-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she was returned to the ocean.” The release further insisted that the facility has always been in compliance with federal rules and that Lolita is “healthy and thriving.”

Hertz has so far refused to discuss Lolita's sale with the Balcomb group or any other aquarium, where she might have access to a more spacious tank. In the meantime, Lolita's pool continues to age.

Damning video footage, taken in the 1990s by Russ Rector of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation and played on local news stations, showed the underside of Lolita's tank at the time: a maze of temporary jacks and supports, rigged to keep the steadily leaking tank bottom in one piece. An algae-covered window looks out into the tank; Rector says that when he put his hand on one of these windows as Lolita did her big breach, the glass panel moved a half inch. The Seaquarium was hit with a number of building code violations by city officials in 2003 (mostly involving faulty electrical wiring, cracked concrete and a loose railing) and promptly began repairs to address them. No one from the public has seen the pool's underside since then, though the park underwent major upgrades in 2006 after a hurricane damaged parts of the facility.

Hertz has promised to improve the pool, but continues to face one hitch: he can't expand. Key Biscayne residents have clamped down on business expansion in an effort to rein in growth and traffic problems. Fearing that a Seaquarium expansion would worsen their problems, the Village of Key Biscayne successfully fought the Seaquarium's attempts to expand in the 1990s and continues to deny Hertz's efforts to increase parking and improve the pool.

In 2003, Hertz told local journalists that he was embarking on a project to expand Lolita's tank, but the project never came to fruition. A source told the Miami Herald that Palace Entertainment (which owns a variety of smaller amusement parks around the country) recently bid $30 million to purchase the Seaquarium. According to the Herald, the facility's revenues have been rising in recent years despite its aging state. And the park's private surveys have shown that two out of three ticket-buyers come to see Lolita. When her daily shows begin, most of the rest of the park goes vacant.

Two years ago, there were concerns when Lolita developed dental and intestinal problems, which can be fatal for captive killer whales. Since then, her health has reportedly improved. But the people working to free her don't know how long all this will last. “She's already lived far beyond what anyone could expect,” says Garrett. “For Lolita, it's just a matter of time. They very well could wake up one morning and find her dead.”

On a typical day, Lolita performs twice for the crowds who pack the bleachers around her concrete confines of the Miami Seaquarium — once in the early afternoon and again later in the day. The shows, about 20 minutes each, feature acrobatics by both the killer whale and three to six Pacific white-sided dolphins. The other main feature is nonstop blaring rock music of the anthemic variety, rattling around the concrete-and-steel stadium like a tin can.

The dolphins are high leapers and impressively fast. But nothing makes the crowd gasp like Lolita when she breaches, as she does several times for the crowd. If it's a hot day (as it usually is in Key Biscayne) she splashes the crowds in the first four or five rows with the immense waves she produces when she breaches and at one point gives people a complete drenching by splashing them with her powerful tail flukes. The main impression that emerges from all this splashing, though, is of a big kid in a bathtub. In this tiny pool, with this enormous whale, that's about right.

Lolita appears to have an affectionate relationship with her trainers, but they also ride her a lot. There is a ride on her side, with a trainer gripping the right pectoral, around the pool; a ride on her chest, also around the pool; a straight-up breach with a trainer athletically balancing atop her rostrum, high into the air; a similar straight-up-and-down breach with a trainer draped down the whale's chin, gripping the rostrum; and then a standing surfer-style ride around the pool by a trainer on her back, completed by a brief ride in front of her pectoral onto the pool's slide-out for the show's finale. Except for the breaches, which are commonly seen in Southern Residents like Lolita, none of this is natural behavior for an orca.

Yet she's been doing this daily more than 40 years.

At the Miami Seaquarium, audiences are assured by the trainers, docents and park officials that they are doing the right thing for Lolita. Certainly, her handlers deserve credit for having maintained her health so well for all these years, and I was deeply moved by the mutual affection she clearly shared with them (though they declined to talk to this reporter). I suspect that the whale herself deserves much of the credit for health, too: Many who come into contact with her come away impressed with her immense internal strength and patience. Her original veterinarian, the late Jesse White, may have described her best: “So courageous, and so gentle.”

In 2010, Robert Rose, the facility's curator, gave a terse response when an audience member asked him about whether Lolita was happy in her tiny tank, with a McClatchy reporter present: “This is her home,” he said. “It's the only home she's known for 40 years.”

But off Kanaka Bay last summer, L pod whales — Lolita's pod — including Lolita's mother, spent days chatting and milling and munching on Chinook. And they always stayed together.

Ken Balcomb was out watching them, as he often does, from his boat. The scene reminded him of something he has learned over the years of observing L pod in the wild — that for orcas, home isn't just a place. These creatures' home is each other. Wherever their mothers and brothers and aunts and uncles go — usually in search of salmon — that is home. It shifts and drifts with the tide and the fish.

“Those L pod whales are Lolita's home,” says Balcomb. “That's where she belongs.”

This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

About the reporter

David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is an investigative journalist based in Seattle and a contributing writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center.