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Lolita: the long lost L pod member

It was a dark and chilly night on August 8, 1970 in the Puget Sound near Whidbey Island. The orcas of L-pod were gracefully swimming along in the thick of the night, just like any other night. A young calf around the age of three named Tokitae was traveling alongside her Mother Ocean Sun, also known as L25.  But then suddenly out of the darkness speed boats with bombs came swooping in to mark one of the largest whale captures in history. The captors attempted to herd the pod together, but the pod quickly split into two groups in an attempt to decoy and distract the hunter away from the young, but the hunters were not fooled and they continued to follow the young and trapped them in Penn Cove. The hunters quickly set up long nets around the whales and separated the babies from the parents with a floating pen to prepare them for extraction. The young calves were ideal for capture because of their small size and training ability. One mother orca drowned while watching her calf be swept away from her. It is believed that her death was suicide. One woman noted “The sounds they made were we what we really noticed. What you really felt were the cries of both the small ones and the adult ones. I remember one day I stopped close to them with my children and they kept saying, ‘Why are they crying? They’re crying.’ It just broke your heart, and you wanted them to let them go, quit harassing them.” ~Lila Snover.

That night five whales, including four babies and the suicidal mother drowned. Seven juveniles were caught and sold to marine parks around the world, including the small calf named Tokitae. The calves that died had their bellies slit open and filled with rocks and their tails were tied to anchors as they were thrown overboard in an attempt to keep the capture out of the public eye. Unfortunately this night was not the only capture that took place in Puget Sound. A total of 58 orcas had been taken from Puget Sound from 1965 and 1973, with at least 13 killed on the spot. However on November 18, 1970 three of the four infant bodies washed ashore sparking public outrage. This event played a major role in the court decision six years later to ban the capture of any whales off the coast of Washington State.

Tokitae was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for 6,000 dollars, and arrived there on September 24, 1970. Upon her arrived she was renamed “Lolita” in hopes of her mating with their other resident orca Hugo. Hugo was also a member of southern resident community and was captured just two years prior to Lolita’s capture. For the first several weeks after her arrival, Hugo and Lolita were kept in separate tanks, because they feared that they would fight. Hugo was kept in the present day manatee tank that was so shallow that Hugo’s tail curled over at the cement bottom, and his dorsal fin was collapsed like all other males kept in captivity. On June 2, 1971 they were finally brought together and lived in the same tank for a while. Lolita has given birth many times, but has never given birth to a live calf. Over time Hugo became aggressive and withdrawn. He began to bang his head into the walls and he once broke the thick glass of his viewing tank resulting in him slicing the tip of his beak off, which was sewn back on by a veterinarian. He finally died in 1980 from a brain aneurism as a result from ramming his head into the walls. It is still unknown whether it was intentional suicide after 12 years in captivity or just a result of the small size of the tank.

Lolita performs two shows a day since 1970. She resides in the smallest and oldest orca tank in North America. The tank dimensions appear to violate many regulations, and yet nothing has been done about it. Since Hugo’s death, Lolita has not seen any other orcas but still talks her native dialect from the L pod. Many efforts have been made to conduct studies and to release Lolita back into the wild to return home to her family. Kenneth C. Balcomb, founder of the Whale Museum has approached the Seaquarium with various proposals. He has proposed to play some tapes of her L pod family calls to see what would happen, but management refused. He also proposed to lease Lolita temporarily to conduct the experiment but they once again refused. He also offered to buy her in 1992 after hurricane Andrew had blasted through the Seaquarium resulting in the electrocution of six sea lions, but they wouldn’t budge. The Miami Seaquarium is constantly under fire from the public and is being urged to release Lolita, but it is simply about money and they refuse to consider it. The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA studies Lolita’s L pod daily and her mother Ocean Sun (L25) is still alive. While it seems that not much is being done to release her back to her pod, there is still hope that the long lost member of L pod will one day be reunited with her family.


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This post first appeared on Marine Biology @ Friday Harbor Labs – Students I, please read the originial post: here

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Lolita: the long lost L pod member


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