Orca Network applies to rescue Lolita

Keiko sets example for return to wild for orca captured in Penn Cove in the 1970s

Whidbey Island-based Orca Network now hopes to “rescue” Lolita the orca whale from its long-time home in the Miami Seaquarium.

Lolita was one of the whales captured in Penn Cove some 25-years ago before the practice was outlawed. In recent years, orca advocates have been trying to bring Lolita home from Florida, but have met with resistance from the Seaquarium ownership. Even former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro failed to negotiate Lolita’s release.

Recent news of the plight of another famous killer whale, Keiko, has given the Orca Network a new idea for springing Lolita, according to Howard Garrett, who with Susan Berta founded the organization.

Miami Seaquarium requested a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to “rescue” the free-ranging Keiko from his natural habitat in Norway. Garrett said this came despite an existing agreement with NMFS granting responsibility for Keiko to the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation (FWKF). However, he said the action sets a precedent for Orca Network to request a permit from NMFS to rescue Lolita (more formally known as Tokitae).

According to Garrett, Keiko has accomplished phenomenal achievements showing he is able to survive in the wild. He has demonstrated his capabilities by traveling more than 900 miles across the North Atlantic in six weeks while fully satisfying his nutritional needs by foraging on his own.

In early September Keiko was in the coastal waters of Norway, interacting with people. While Seaquarium argues this behavior proves the whale wants to live with humans, Garrett offers an opposite interpretation. He said Keiko is being monitored and his activities managed by qualified personnel who call Keiko to follow them. “In this way they have provided him with long distance endurance training in open water prior to opportunities to resume his efforts to rejoin his community of oceanic orcas,” Garrett said.

With this evidence of the feasibility of returning a long term captive orca to its native habitat, Orca Network asks that NMFS grant a permit to scientifically reintroduce Tokitae to her natal waters in Washington State.” Garrett said. “Specifically, by placing Tokitae in a tank that does not provide straight-line horizontal dimensions equal to twice her body length, at a depth in part only half her body length and in no part equal to her body length, we conclude that the Seaquarium has disregarded Tokitae’s essential need for sufficient space to move without obstructions.”

Garrett said the Seaquarium has also disregarded Tokitae’s need for shelter from the hot Miami sun. She was born in deep ocean waters in a cool northwest climate, but for the past 32 years has been held in a shallow pool with no protection from year round direct sunlight.

As an organization dedicated to the care and well-being of orcas worldwide, Orca Network has an interest in Tokitae’s health.

“To that end,” said Garrett, “we offer to rescue Tokitae and ensure her survival. We will continue to monitor her plight in the Seaquarium tank and stand ready to assist in any way that is appropriate.”

If NMFS accepts the proposal, Orca Network will collaborate with reintroduction specialists to recruit professional marine mammal care staff, arrange logistical support and provide funding to prepare Tokitae, provide transport, establish a bay pen and initiate protocols for her rehabilitation to resume her life in her home waters with the option of rejoining her family and her community, L pod of the Southern Resident Orca community.

“Keiko’s heartwarming success in the face of almost overwhelming odds shows that Lolita’s reintroduction will be a walk in the park by comparison. That explains why the Seaquarium is working so hard to prevent Keiko from enjoying his freedom,” Garrett said.

For information about Orca Network,go to www.orcanetwork.org.