On Saturday, hundreds if not thousands of people will descend on Miami for the Miracle March for Lolita, demanding freedom for the solitary killer whale who has been held in a small tank at the Miami Seaquarium for nearly 45 years.
Among those making the pilgrimage will be Howard Garrett, co-founder of Washington State's Orca Network and a scheduled speaker at the rally. It's not an exaggeration to say that few people have worked longer or more intensively on Lolita's cause than Garrett and his wife Susan Berta. The couple lives on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, site of the notorious Penn Cove roundup of Lolita and her Southern Resident killer whale pod in 1970.
"We began this effort in 1995 as the Tokitae Foundation - based on her original name," Garrett told The Dodo. "It was a pretty obscure name, but we got a start and some publicity from it." Six years later the group morphed into the Orca Network and expanded its reach beyond Lolita (who was renamed by the Seaquarium), "to provide an overall education and conservation message about the Southern Residents, because it became apparent by the late 90s that they were in big trouble," he said of the whales that were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2005.
At the time, however, relatively scant attention was being paid to the plight of captive orcas. "There was no news item, nothing to write a story about, until February 2010, when the trainer was killed in Orlando," Garrett said, referring to Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged into a pool and pummeled by the 12,000-pound male Tilikum. "Then the media and everybody else seemed to come out of their dormant stage and realize this has to end, this is ridiculous. And that's when many things happened."
The tragedy breathed new life into Orca Network's Free Lolita campaign, which includes a detailed proposal on retiring Lolita from her tiny - many would say illegal - quarters to a sea sanctuary on San Juan Island, where her family spends large amounts of time. The goal of Saturday's march is to see that this retirement finally happens - after so many long and lonely years.
Lolita's story is not a felicitous one. She was likely born between 1966 and 1968, before being captured at a tender age in 1970. "Penn Cove was a brutal roundup," said Garrett, who was featured in the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," in which he describes the mass capture. "Seven young whales were removed and delivered to aquariums, and at least four were killed. Lolita was shipped to the Seaquarium, where there was already a young male orca, Hugo, who was also captured in Puget Sound. He was probably a Southern Resident relative."
Of the seven young orcas taken from Penn Cove, only Lolita survives. "She's been in that tank ever since," Garret said. Hugo was put in the same pool with the highly traumatized Lolita, despite fears they would fight each other in the cramped quarters. It didn't happen. The two lived harmoniously for ten years until one day when Hugo slammed his head against an underwater viewing window, splintering the glass and nearly slicing off the end of his rostrum.
"The vets sewed it back on, but he soon died of a brain aneurysm - it was an apparent suicide," Garrett said. "Lolita lived through that and, somehow, she still maintains her daily routine, does whatever is asked. It's got to be boring and so repetitive: Twice a day, the same performances. But she just puts up with it."
Scientists - including Naomi Rose, a marine mammal expert at the Animal Welfare Institute who will also address the rally, and Ken Balcomb, head of the Center for Whale Research and Garrett's half-brother - believe that Lolita has never forgotten her family. In 1995, a crew from Dateline NBC visited her tank, bearing recordings of vocalizations from her pod taped by Balcomb. "When she heard that, she came halfway out of the water and leaned in so that her inner ear on the side of her head was as close as possible to that little speaker," Garret said. "That, to me, demonstrated she knew that was her family."
In addition to rallies, public pressure and media scrutiny, Garrett has high hopes for legal action to help Lolita, including a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture contending that the facility is not compliant with the Animal Welfare Act. Another action seeks to place Lolita on the federal Endangered Species List along with her Southern Resident family, possibly paving the way for her retirement to a sea pen.
Regardless of the outcome of those suits, Garret and his wife Berta will continue to fight for Lolita's release from her current confinement. Why do they devote so much energy to a single animal? "Because by telling her story, it's telling the story of the Southern Residents and of all orcas," he said. "She is a medium to tell the amazing and unprecedented natural history of this species."
See the event page for the march for more information, and sign a petition calling for Lolita's release here.