This is a repost from the original article at my website, orcamama.com. Additional pictures and videos are available on the full article post there. For reference, I refer to Lolita as Toki in the content of the article.
Finally, giving up my spot at the rail, I headed back up to my seat where the 20 minute presentation of propaganda and ridiculousness began. I did grab a short clip of the pool area as a whole before the show began.
Several of you have asked me if the new policy of trainers being out of the water had a big impact. Having not seen a show before this, (and I don't remember the content of the show I saw when I was 12) there was really nothing to compare it to so I am not sure I can truly answer the question. However, this seemed to be the general outline of the show- talk, talk, talks while Toki floated at best three times, performed a jumping behavior.
So then, of course, you have to open with a bang and they asked her to perform a leap, to which she did (because of course, she was probably hungry and just a compliant girl). And this, more than anything tells the whole story. Check out the pictures- at full extension, she is almost as big as that part of the tank. She is one smart, skilled animal. One wrong leap out point could mean disaster, as she has little room for error on her way back into the water. The spot she chose to come up and out was spot on and why wouldn't it be? She's been forced to do it for forty years. It struck me how it wasn't necessarily high, definitely not expressive as you see of orcas in the wild breaching. She knows the physical limits of her space and this behavior definitely reflected it.
She also did a sort of backward breach out of the water, which seemed even more tame and limited. The trainer working with her was not speaking and the other, controlling the dolphins was not either. My daughter began tugging on my arm and pointed to another trainer in the alcove entrance. "Mom, she has a script! She's reading from it!" As soon as I switched lenses to get close up shots, her hand was down and out of camera view, but she was holding the paper. I am sure the script had been reworked because without water work, you definitely lose a sense of wow factor from the entertainment standpoint- and I am sure they might have been doing more speaking. Nonetheless, it came off pretty lame, but I am not sure many other people noticed, because when she needed to read it, she ducked further and further back.
Splash type behaviors seemed to be a standard go to. And really, when you think about it, it makes sense. It's a behavior that they can get her to do quickly, because it's such a small area and then in my mind, she's not out of the water, which really won't call your attention to the size. She's more submerged and her size is distorted until she passes by in front of you. And of course, it's an utterly ridiculous one- that again, minimizes her beauty and existence to nothing more than a splash machine. I hate splashing. I absolutely hate it. It screams selfishness and man over mammal. What's funny about this is when I think back into my childhood visits to Sea World, I never, ever wanted to be in the splash areas. I hated that behavior and on top of not wanting to be drenched in cold water, the stunt just never entertained me.
I found the volume to be loud but even so, at times, it was hard to hear exactly what was being said. Sometimes the trainer speaking was clear and then sometimes, it would sound garbled or if the volume of the crowd picked up, then it got really difficult to hear. I could practically hear alarm bells (ok, not really) when I heard the term Southern Resident Killer Whales. As best as I can recall and understand, the crowd was told the definition of pod, and that hers was recently designated as an endangered. Then, they quickly and quite emphatically stated that as Toki was a member of the pod, she too was designated as endangered. I shouldn't have been surprised by this, but I really was taken off guard. In my mind, I wouldn't think that they would have wanted to even disclose to an unknowing tourist that they were keeping an endangered orca. However, I should have known better. Without missing a beat, they twisted this to a "look at us, we are protecting an endangered animal with the best care and as she is the oldest orca in captivity, blah, blah. (Like that was something to be friggin' proud of). And then again, my mouth got the better of me. I blurted out, "Yeah, and the mother in which she was separated from is still out there with the rest of her family." Or something to that effect. The lady next to me looked over, a bit irritated at first and then a bit stunned.
And this little line of nonsense, I am happy to say I got on video. Ahh, the ye-old-dorsal-fin-collapse debate. Just sit and gawk, eye roll and should the need arise; throw an expletive at them, if you are so inclined. Sea World's coined this as an aesthetic issue but the spin here at MSQ was a little more simplified. It just doesn't mean anything is wrong with them. However, what makes me smile here, is they contradict themselves in a sense, because they explain it's from more surfacing. Yes, dear. Surfacing because Toki has no room to do anything else!!!!! (And after the video ends, I assure you, once again my big mouth opened.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_k6IiIIPM-I&feature;=youtu.be (video link to this)
Let's be sure to focus on her tail. Because that will educate. And inspire.
More pec waves with a splash of dolphin thrown in. It got pretty tiresome.
And another breach, followed by the chorus of leaping dolphins.
Between all this, there was a return to the work island if she wasn't far from it and what I start calling F & F- fish and float. It was by far, what was done the most. Such an injustice and downright cruel.
Finally, this sham of an "educational presentation" ended with the obligatory and cliché tail waves. See ya folks, be sure to go out and save the whales with all the powerful and incorrect information you just acquired.
I knew my time was almost up, so after about ¾ of the crowd was out, we left our seats. My daughter was pretty fed up, so she told me she would wait out front. I headed back to the rail, in pretty much the same spot I used before. Toki was in the same spot as when I first approached the rail when I entered the stadium. She had a bit of an audience on the other side as you can see.
I decided to take one more walk around the perimeter of the pool. I noticed that they were gathering the kids from the camps in one area of the bleachers to the way left, I presumed for trainers to talk to them. I was a little curious as to what was being said, so I followed the rail in that general direction as far as I could go. By this time, I was one of maybe 15-20 people left from the audience. When I focused on my attention back on Toki, I realized she was moving. And heading in my direction. I started shooting pictures of her approach, all the while, my heart absolutely racing. I got a few and then put my camera down to see what she would do. She turned and parked herself in front of me. (Or whatever was of interest in my area).
Again, I did the looksy left and right to see what could have captured her attention. There were the kids behind me in the bleachers up a ways, the orca police milling about, but that was really about it. I was so glad I had my smaller lens on the camera because if I had kept my extended one on, I know myself- I would have been shuffling to adjust and possibly missed what will be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
That girl came right to where I was standing. I was pretty much the only one at the rail in that area and she stopped. Right in front of me. The first few seconds were of disbelief, then intense excitement.
The photo header picture of this post was taken with my short lens. Much closer than I had gotten to see her before and I saw the movement and pupils in her eyes. She was making direct eye contact with me. It was intense and close. I started to tear and I am convinced she probably saw that too. I asked her if I could take her picture (not sure why, wasn't like she was gonna say either way), she just kept staring. So I grabbed this amazing set as quick as I could and put the camera right down. The viewfinder interrupted the eye contact so it was a few quick clicks of the shutter and I had no interest in that.
While she was watching me, I found myself saying, "Hello sweet girl!" I was still not really bought into the fact she might be looking at me and there was something else that had her interest, so I crouched down and looked at her through that a tiny window that was below the rail but barely above water level, never taking my eyes off hers. Wouldn't ya know- she followed me. I popped back up above the rail. Eyes right with mine. By this point, the interaction was drawing some unwanted attention, a quick glance up and I saw two or three orca police coming over. I knew I was being watched and that most likely, time was limited.
And at that point, the tears began to fall. She just kept her eye on me, watching me pretty close. I have wondered what she must have thought, if anything. She was so close that if I braved the yellow line, leaned over and put my hand out, she would have been within inches of it.
Recording this probably would have been good. But honestly, I was so entranced by her, I only thought about the camera in front of me, and even then, I wanted to limit its use because I was pretty sure the more I used it, the more likely she would be put off. I truly she wanted to see another living being and not a viewfinder. It really never occurred to me to video it, until after, and even then, no regrets.
And then I said what I said. Probably more for all of us, than her. Who knows what her perception of this whole thing was- for all I know, I was just another in a long line of humans who had paraded in front of her, day in, day out for over forty years.
But I told her out loud, above a whisper, among a few tears. "Toki, there are a lot of people who are doing everything we can for you. You stay strong girl." That is exactly what I said. I will never forget it. I never intended to say it. And honestly, I would have rather never had to say it. I wish instead of staring at my sweaty, 42 year old mug, she had been swimming in a straight line with her mother at that moment. This interaction is a crime against what nature intended and was not part of its amazing design. It is what it is though and I will never regret saying what I did, even if it was not clear to her. I have a feeling in some sense, she picked up on something. Who knows though? I just spoke to her from my heart because really, at that moment, it was all I could do.
I guess I didn't realize how loud I was because the orca police were on me like flies on food at a picnic. I looked up at the two of them and they were tense. " Ma'am, this show is over and the stadium is closed." I glanced back at Toki. She was still there and watching. I dried my tears, smiled back at her and as I walked past the police, I rolled my eyes with the smuggest smile I could possibly muster. I didn't say anything to them. They couldn't do a damn thing about what just happened.
I took one quick glance back right before I exited. Toki's trainers were in the bleachers with the campers. Toki was in the same spot, doing her floating bit. I was still in some sort of cardiac chaos from the entire experience. I took one last good look at her and left. In that alcove by the garage doors, I had to stand and catch my breath and sort of regroup. I kept wondering if I was making more of something that just happened to occur or did it really happen.
We immediately headed to the exit after I found my daughter and headed back to our hotel. My husband and the kids ventured out. I needed the next few hours to just go through the entire morning again and sort of get my bearings.
It's been almost two weeks and my memory hasn't clouded. I've replayed it over and over. I did manage to finally quit questioning myself and spending energy thinking that I was making something out of nothing. I need to move forward in this mission and if that few minutes looking into an orca's eyes helps me step up my game and make a difference, so be it.
After returning home, my order of David Neiwert's new book, Of Orcas and Men was waiting for me. Only a few pages into the book, he describes Toki and her surroundings at MSQ. He also wrote about an experience with Toki that was somewhat similar to mine. As I read, I sobbed. His experience affirmed what I really truly knew but was somehow afraid to believe- that Toki was looking back. And that she got it. Neiwert wrote, "when a whale looks back, it's not the same as when, say, a dog or cat looks back." This statement is filled with truth and captures exactly what I saw in Toki's eyes that morning.
I do wish I had read this before visiting because he also had some orca police hovering and wisely limited his remarks. It made me chuckle in a way too, because looking back, those orca police, really can police nothing of consequence. Toki is too majestic and amazing, smart and inspiring to ever be "managed." I see why she has such a huge support base. Yes, the issue of her captivity is polarizing- it's frustrating and unjust but you just can't help but feel this incredible lure and affinity for her. Maybe it's in the way she handles such daily trauma. You can't help but admire her and it certainly makes you want to work harder.
What that incredible experience overall has done is reaffirmed and locked in my commitment to this idea that orca and other marine mammals deserve to live in their own natural habitats, with their own families and without human interference. In essence, I made her a promise that I intend to keep. (And I kind of threw you guys all in there with me J) We continue to keep up the pressure and fight the good fight.
What I saw that day and what message she gave to me, tells me she deserves nothing but our best.
For the sake of orca, M