World's Loneliest Orca Still Stuck In America's Tiniest Tank

Lolita - the unlucky orca who's spent 45 long years in captivity - isn't going anywhere, the Miami Seaquarium announced this week.

Lolita is both the oldest orca in captivity and the orca with the smallest tank in the U.S. Captured from the wild as a 4-year-old calf in 1970, the 49-year-old orca has spent most of her life in the Seaquarium's undersized tank, which is only four body lengths long and 20 feet deep.

Though orcas are highly social and Lolita would have lived with her family for her entire life in the wild, her sole companion, a male named Hugo, died in 1980. She's been alone ever since, though she currently shares her tiny home with a few dolphins.

When SeaWorld announced last week that it would end its captive orca breeding program, the Seaquarium followed with an update of its own indicating Lolita's situation won't be improving anytime soon.

"We will continue our commitment to education, conservation and the appreciation for all marine species, including Lolita, our resident Orca [sic]," Andrew Hertz, general manager of the Miami Seaquarium, said in a statement. "All of the residents at the park play an important role in the mission of Miami Seaquarium to educate the public about the need to conserve the marine environment and its residents."

Unfortunately, the message seems to indicate that Lolita's stuck in her tiny tank for the foreseeable future - despite the many voices calling for her release to a sea sanctuary, or at least a larger enclosure. The park also highlighted its revamped orca show, which, it says incorporates "important educational and conservational elements."

These photos are roughly scaled. For reference, SeaWorld's show tank (the largest part on the left) is 190 feet long. Lolita's entire tank is 80 feet long. | Google Earth

"Several months ago the killer whale presentation at Miami Seaquarium transitioned into an educational presentation about killer whales, their natural behaviors and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population," Hertz said.

But according to one marine biologist, the Seaquarium's new show is anything but educational.

"I literally burst out laughing up in the bleachers ... after they said killer whales vocalize with their blowholes," Dr. Naomi Rose, Ph.D., an orca expert and marine biologist who works with the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo about a recent trip to see the revamped show. "It was so bad. It's so wrong."

Rose said that not only does the show not endorse conservation, but it also gets some facts about orcas completely incorrect. "It's like they just took all this really cool information ... and just threw it in the trash," she said.

For one, as noted above, Rose heard the trainers tell the audience that orcas communicate through their blowholes, and then had Lolita demonstrate. Rose said that, while she's heard wild orcas make snort-like noises through their blowholes, it's far from a communication method.

"It's not a vocalization," she said of the blowhole noises. "It's like burping ... it is not something that you would actually consider a communication sound."

Rose also said the show's focus on conservation ended up being a "grim and bitter" presentation on how terrible the wild was - an approach, Rose explained, that would hardly inspire people to want to preserve it.

"They wanted to explain to people that Lolita was never going to leave ... and the only way they could get that across was to paint how horrible [the wild was]," she said. "They just went on and on about how grim it was."

The show's focus on the southern resident killer whales, a population of orcas that lives off the Northwestern Pacific coast, is significant as Lolita was one of a generation of babies stolen from the southern residents in the 1970s. The calves ended up at SeaWorld and the Seaquarium, among other parks, and the southern residents never quite recovered from the loss of an entire breeding generation.

They're currently listed as endangered, making Lolita an endangered orca. Her family members are likely still alive and swimming free.

While the show might not appear at first to have implications for Lolita, Rose said it's indicative of a bigger problem within the captive marine mammal industry.

Captive marine mammals, particularly endangered orcas like Lolita, are regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA requires that facilities have an education or conservation program in place in order to display marine mammals.

But according to Rose, once a place like the Seaquarium or SeaWorld is approved to exhibit orcas under the MMPA, there are few check-ups or opportunities to confirm the facility's education or conservation program meets any sort of standards. "They let the industry self-regulate," she said.

And that means that places like Miami Seaquarium can continue to exhibit animals like Lolita in the name of education and conservation, even when they're telling the public completely incorrect facts about orca biology.

"The only reason they're [aquariums] able to display these animals is because, under the MMPA, they're [NOAA] assuming it's for conservation," she said. "The government should say something."

Of course, unless the policy changes, Lolita's future is in the hands of the Seaquarium, which seems determined to milk whatever money it can from the aging orca.

"The marine mammal shows at Miami Seaquarium are constantly evolving," Hertz said.

If only they'd evolve into something a bit kinder.