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Orca roundups recalled

 - photo courtesy of Wallie Funk
— image credit: photo courtesy of Wallie Funk

Effort continues to bring Lolita back home

Orca Network is holding an annual commemoration Friday, Aug. 8, for the 45 Southern Resident orcas taken during the capture era, and honoring Lolita, the only remaining survivor, who lives alone at the Miami Sequarium.

Southern Resident orcas, or J, K, and L pods, once lived in a time when chinook salmon runs were abundant, the waters were clean and the habitat undisturbed. But the ever-increasing human population has taken its toll, Howard Garrett of Orca Network said.

At one time, orcas, or “killer whales” were feared by humans and were commonly shot at or used for military target practice. Then in the 1960s and ’70s that fear changed to realization that orcas were not dangerous, but were intelligent and trainable. The marine park industry was born.

During this period, 45 Southern Resident orcas were captured and delivered to marine parks, and another dozen or more were killed during the captures.

Garrett said the whales were easily visible in Puget Sound and trackers would throw cherry bombs into the water to panic them. By using airplanes, boats and bombs, the orcas were herded into Penn Cove, where Lolita was picked up in the ’70s.

At the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita was housed with a male orca, Hugo, who died in 1980 at the age of 15. The report said he died of a brain aneurysm from smashing his head through the 5-inch-thick windows, which drained the tank of water and chopped off his nose.

“This is just an example of the conditions of captivity. Orcas travel 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours and in family groups. When you put them in a tank, it’s very tiny from their perspective,” Garrett said.

Lolita floated in the tank listlessly, appearing depressed, but continued to perform. The other 45 orcas dispersed throughout the world died either on arrival or months and years after capture. By 1987, all but Lolita had died. Today, she reportedly remains healthy.

Orca Network is looking for a benevolent benefactor to help them bring Lolita back to the San Juan Island region, Garret said. They need about $2 million. Several Hollywood celebrities have taken up the cause.

If brought back, the orca would be netted off in a cove in the San Juan Islands and aquarium caretakers would continue providing her diet. Because whales don’t have a permanent home, they rely on trust and their relationships with other orcas; a bond Lolita would have formed with the aquarium’s staff. Eventually she would be given live fish to catch.

“Then comes the choice. She could choose to stay in human care or we could open the net and she could rejoin her family. In which case, bon voyage. Either way, she’d have a far better life coming back here,” Garrett said.

Whale captures eventually ended in 1976 after a count was taken of the remaining population. It was discovered that one third to one half had been removed, all of them younger whales. With only 71 orcas remaining, the days of orca circuses ended, and the Southern Resident population slowly climbed to nearly 100 by the mid 1990s.

Today, the orcas face declining salmon runs due to loss of wetlands, protective sanctuaries, and toxic pollution brought on by storm water run-off. The hungry orcas relied on their stored up blubber for energy, but the toxins entered their blood stream in large quantities and blocked hormones needed for their immune system.

“They were susceptible to common infections like the cold or phenomena,” Garrett said.

From 1995 to 2001, 20 percent of the Southern Resident population died, plunging the population to only 78 whales.

In 2005, these orcas were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The population has crept back up to about 87, but remains very fragile.

Garrett said the popularity of whale watching that began in the 1980s introduced millions of people to orcas.

“When 20 percent suddenly died in a five-year span, that set off an alarm bell. There was a huge interest by the public and public agencies, which spurred awareness,” he said.

He hopes people will continue to educate themselves and invites them to attend the Orca Capture Commemoration Event at the historic Captain Whidbey Inn, near the site of the 1970 orca capture.

Proceeds will go to their educational programs and also toward bringing Lolita back to the region.

“Orcas live up to 90 years and Lolita is in her early 40s. She could have decades with her family,” Garrett said.

In her honor, the group will throw a wreath into the water and give updates on how she’s doing.

The evening will include displays, presentations, the waterside ceremony, silent auction, appetizers and beverages. The cost is $20 per person and tickets can be purchased at the door or by calling 678-3451.

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