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‘Free Lolita’ protesters paddle to Penn Cove

Lolita was one of the killer whales rounded up in the ‘70s in Penn Cove, an event documented in photos by Wallie Funk, former Whidbey News-Times publisher.  - Photo courtesy of Wallie Funk
Lolita was one of the killer whales rounded up in the ‘70s in Penn Cove, an event documented in photos by Wallie Funk, former Whidbey News-Times publisher.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Wallie Funk

The waters of Penn Cove will be filled with protesters Saturday, May 15, as the worldwide effort to “Free Lolita” continues.

Every year, paddlers from across the region descend on the site where 45 Southern Resident orcas were captured in the 1970s.

Of the 45 whales removed, Lolita is the only survivor. She performs at the Miami Seaquarium, confined in what is reportedly one of the smallest whale tanks in North America.

Orca Network director Howard Garrett said her captivity is an atrocity, and activists worry about Lolita’s quality of life.

“She shouldn’t have to be there and it’s a miracle she’s still alive. She defies all the odds,” he said.

Lolita supporters hope to send a message to marine parks that there is a viable retirement plan for the 40-year-old. They would like to reunite her with her home waters and possibly, her family. Lolita’s probable mother, Ocean Sun, is still alive.

“The Southern Residents are bonded in their families for life,” said Garrett. “Lolita is part of the L-pod. We know that because of the calls she still makes to this day.”

The annual protest acts as a visual statement, Garrett said, and the idea is to paddle out to the scene of the capture, between the Captain Whidbey Inn and the Penn Cove shellfish dock, with a banner between two kayaks. There will be canoes and other small boats carrying signs, flags or inflatable orcas.

“We appreciate people’s interest in learning about Lolita. When people understand her story, they better understand Southern Residents,” Garrett said.

Reports tell that Lolita was captured in 1970 as she and her family swam through Admiralty Inlet. Trackers herded the whales into Penn Cove with cherry bombs and separated the calves from their mothers. At least 13 whales drowned during the captures.

Garrett said that in certain accounts, the whales that had been released by trackers stayed behind. They continued calling to the captured orcas until the final whale was taken out of the water.

“For people who were there to witness that, they said it was incredibly heartbreaking. You could feel the agitation of the capture and the silent resignation as they left Penn Cove,” he said.

The movement to free Lolita has gained international attention, and many celebrities have joined the cause. Simon Hutchins, the producer of “The Cove,” the 2009 Academy Award winning documentary about the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, will protest at the Miami Seaquarium this year for Lolita’s release.

Demonstrations will also take place in 42 cities worldwide.

Kayakers on Whidbey Island will launch at 5 p.m. this evening as the tide comes up. The 52-foot sailing vessel, the Cutty Sark, owned by Captain John Stone will act as the flagship of the protest. Orca Network asks that people park at the DNR beach access just west of Captain Whidbey on Madrona Way.

Depending on the weather and the tides, the group may also paddle to the Coupeville Wharf, where an educational exhibit about the Penn Cove Orca capture is displayed.

For more information, contact howard@orcanetwork.org.

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