Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times)
                                Gary and Tammy Shelton traveled to Coupeville from Port Ludlow to participate in the annual Empty the Tanks protest to advocate for the release of orcas. Though it is a worldwide event, the local gathering focused on Lolita — the last remaining survivor of the infamous 1970 Penn Cove orca capture.

Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times) Gary and Tammy Shelton traveled to Coupeville from Port Ludlow to participate in the annual Empty the Tanks protest to advocate for the release of orcas. Though it is a worldwide event, the local gathering focused on Lolita — the last remaining survivor of the infamous 1970 Penn Cove orca capture.

Orca Network not giving up on Lolita

Nearly half a century later, the fight for Lolita continues.

Starting 11 a.m. Saturday, about 20 people gathered at the intersection of Main Street and State Highway 20 in Coupeville as part of the annual international protest Empty the Tanks. Though the protesters expressed concerns for all captive orcas, there’s one tank in particular they want to see emptied.

Lolita, or Tokitae, is the last surviving member of the infamous 1970 orca capture, and she still resides in the nation’s smallest orca tank at Miami Seaquarium.

“I can’t believe we’re still protesting this (expletive),” said Tammy Shelton, “because it’s horrible.”

She and her husband, Gary Shelton, traveled from Port Ludlow to join the Coupeville protest, and in years past had come from Yakima to join the cause. As a child she saw Namu, the first orca to perform together with a human in the water. The cetacean died after a year in captivity, and her memory of that resolved her to eventually join the Empty the Tanks cause.

The annual protest is organized by the nonprofit Empty the Tanks, which this year hosted 16 events in North America and more than 40 in countries around the world. On its website, the organization recognizes that not all of these creatures are equipped to be released in the wild. For some, retirement to sea pens might be the best option.

Howard Garrett, Orca Network co-founder and board president, said the controlled release into a sea pen is Lolita’s best option.

The organization, in collaboration with several other wildlife groups and the Lummi tribe, has had an evolving retirement plan for the mammal for years. It involves transporting the 22-foot, 7,000-pound orca to a sea pen off the coast of Orcas Island and providing extended veterinary care.

Some scientists believe transporting an older orca who has spent so much of her life in captivity could do more harm than good, according the Miami Herald. Experts told the newspaper that the move itself might be too much stress for the animal and might cause her to be vulnerable to oil spills, diseases and other harm.

Garrett, on the other hand, thinks she’s a perfect candidate.

“I’ve gained a lot of respect for Lolita,” he said.

He cited her apparent mental and physical resilience. According to Orca Project research, the animals last on average less than 10 years in captivity.

Lolita’s ability to survive in her 80-by-60 concrete pool gives him hope she would thrive in a return to her native waters, even if she can’t be fully released into the wild.

“She has spunk,” he said.

(Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times)
                                Shari Devlin displays her sign at the intersection of Highway 20 and Main Street in Coupeville Saturday as part of the annual Empty the Tanks protest to release orcas.

(Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times) Shari Devlin displays her sign at the intersection of Highway 20 and Main Street in Coupeville Saturday as part of the annual Empty the Tanks protest to release orcas.

More in Life

Giraffe Heroes: Honoring those who do the right thing, regardless of obstacles

There aren’t any live giraffes in Langley, but the blue Giraffe Building… Continue reading

Journey into the African savanna

Disney’s The Lion King Jr. showing at Whidbey Playhouse through July 28

Share the shore during pup season, look but don’t touch seals

Advocates for marine mammals are making their annual pitch to beach watchers… Continue reading

Top 4-H student of the year reflects on experiences | Whidbey Island Fair

SWHS grad Camden Miller participated in the horse division for years, switched to cattle this year

All kids on deck: New park makes a splash

Children play in the cool water of the new splash park, Shipwreck… Continue reading

A chance to learn about Whidbey waters

Guided Beach Walks program an opportunity to spot wildlife, learn about ocean

Art & About | Whidbey Island’s July art events

• SECOND SATURDAY ART WALK at Historic GREENBANK FARM is 2-5 p.m.,… Continue reading

Patriotism on parade in Oak Harbor

American spirit was on proud display at Oak Harbor’s Fourth of July… Continue reading

Sweet treats to beat the heat

Fruity recipes from Bell’s Farm, Lavender Wind and Mutiny Bay Distillery

Radio Club holds annual Field Day

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and Island County Amateur Radio Club… Continue reading

Navy open house draws fans of all ages to Ault Field

Although the Navy’s presence is always visible around Oak Harbor, both on… Continue reading