`Free Lolita' real-life drama


Orca: Activists in Washington state want to return a popular performing killer whale from the Miami Seaquarium to her natural home in Puget Sound.

July 17, 2002|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

EVERETT, Wash. -- Three decades ago, hunters dropped nets into the deep, blue waters of Puget Sound and rounded up seven orcas, including a 6-year-old female calf caught off the rugged coastline of the San Juan Islands.

Like other orcas, or killer whales, captured in Puget Sound in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the killer whales were sold and shipped to marine parks around the world. The female calf -- who became known as Lolita -- ended up at the Miami Seaquarium, where she still lives and today is the focal point of a grass-roots campaign to return her to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

The little-known story of Lolita, the oldest orca in captivity, reaches new ears every summer as the whale-watching season begins in earnest and naturalists such as Cindy Hansen share the curious tale of the 37-year-old orca with the throngs of seafaring tourists.

"A lot of people have been to the Seaquarium and have seen Lolita, but they have no idea there's a movement to bring her back home," says Hansen, who recounts Lolita's saga aboard a boat of the Mosquito Fleet, one of about 30 U.S. and Canadian whale-watching companies in Puget Sound.

Inspired by the return to the wild of Keiko, the beloved orca featured in the 1993 movie Free Willy, a growing band of Washington State residents, animal rights activists, naturalists, lawmakers and others are working to liberate Lolita through letter-writing campaigns and a protest outside the Seaquarium every Mother's Day.

"Unfortunately, Lolita's not a movie star like Keiko," says Howard Garrett, president of the Orca Network, an organization founded in the mid-1990s on Lolita's behalf. "In terms of relocation and reintroduction, Lolita's situation would be absolutely simple in comparison to Keiko's."

These distinctive black-and-white marine mammals can be found at about a half-dozen parks across the country -- the closest to Baltimore is Six Flags Worlds of Adventure near Cleveland. The Orca Network has focused on Lolita because she is the last surviving orca from the Puget Sound roundups, and her advocates believe she can survive in the wild.

Lolita's family still swims in Puget Sound, members of one of three resident pods plying the waters between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia. Garrett and others believe Lolita would recognize them, and they would recognize her by their dialect -- each killer whale pod has its own range of calls. Despite friendly encounters with a couple of hundred killer whales off the Iceland coast, Keiko has yet to find his family.

"A lot of people involved with the Lolita campaign are watching the Keiko effort with great attention," says David Phillips, executive director of the Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization at the forefront of Keiko's reintroduction to the wild. "Many people said what we're doing with Keiko could not be done. As we've proved them wrong, it really gives hope to those who are trying to see other orcas returned to the wild."

The successful return this week of a 2-year-old orphan orca -- found alone in Puget Sound last winter -- to her Canadian relatives 400 miles away bolsters Lolita's cause, advocates say.

Once demonized, these long, torpedo-shaped mammals can be found in oceans and seas around the world, and the Pacific Northwest is one of the better-known sites, attracting thousands of whale watchers every summer. The Puget Sound orcas also are among the most studied whales in the world.

About three decades ago, they attracted hunters for marine parks from around the globe. Lolita was one of about 45 whales captured in the Puget Sound between 1965 and 1976. Thirteen orcas were killed during the sometimes brutal captures. Whale hunting ended in Washington state in 1976 after extensive public outcry.

"Most people look pretty horrified when I go into the history of the orca capture. You see them wiping their eyes. It was pretty horrible, from what people have told me," Hansen says. "They separated moms from their babies. The moms were leaping out of the water, calling for their calves. Some of the whales died from drowning or trauma."

Since then, scientists and researchers have learned a great deal about these once-misunderstood mammals. The largest member of the dolphin family, killer whales live in a matriarchal society. Male and female offspring stay with their mothers. As many as four generations live together, traveling, feeding and resting, and rarely separate for any significant length of time.

"We know so much more about them today," Garrett says. "To this day, Lolita is a member of her family. She uses the same calls -- we know that. Three females in her sub-pod were photographed during Lolita's capture. They were adults then and are still live. One could very well be her mother."

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