Dear Friends of Lolita,
"The trainer was pinned by the whale at the bottom of the pool," said an onlooker. On November 29, at Sea World in San Diego, Kasatka, a 17-foot long 5,000+-pound Icelandic orca about 30 years old, grabbed the foot of veteran trainer Ken Peters and held him at the bottom of the 36-foot-deep pool. The incident occurred at the end of the afternoon show, when Peters and Kasatka were at the bottom of the tank to set up the trademark act: the whale rocketing to the surface with the trainer diving off her nose. After almost a minute, Kasatka brought Peters to the surface by his foot, then took him back down for nearly another minute. Peters' foot was broken.
Kasatka was captured off Iceland in 1978, and is the mother of three, Kalia and Nakai, also kept at SW San Diego, and her oldest, Kalina, who was taken to SW in Orlando. For complete lists of captive orcas, see: (http://www.orcahome.de/orcastat.htm
A SW trainer said one of Kasatka's offspring had vocalized just before she grabbed his foot. That may be a clue to explaining the incident. Orcas are members of their families and societies. Kasatka no doubt tries to create a pod for her two offspring and the four other orcas in the tanks, in spite of being separated, moved and ordered around by trainers. Kasatka was doing the show alone. Possibly she just needed to comment on the trainer's attitude or behavior that day. Holding the trainer underwater seems like a meaningful gesture.
As AP reported: "Some mornings they just wake up not as willing to do the show as others," said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. "If the trainer doesn't recognize it's not a good day, this will happen." Naomi Rose, marine-mammal scientist for the Humane Society, said the incident is proof that orcas should not be kept in captivity and made to perform tricks.
One trainer said a different whale dived with a trainer's foot in its mouth two or three weeks ago but then released the trainer uninjured. Far more common, but seldom reported, the orcas simply refuse to act as directed.
We don't have the words to describe the intelligence, awareness and cultural complexity of the orca. Trainers maintain the illusion that they are in control of captive orcas, but the reality is the whales cooperate in part because food is withheld until the show is over, and because orcas are inherently social and cooperative and usually prefer to accommodate the wishes of the trainers rather than cause anxiety.
The amazing thing about the Sea World incident is that it doesn't happen more often, or that these intelligent, social beings didn't attack their captors when they were brutally taken from their pods in the wild, when young calves were separated from their mom's sides and trucked away to perform the rest of their lives, most to die an early death. Some have committed suicide by either slamming their heads against the tanks or by voluntarily stopping their breathing.
Orcas in the wild (who swim 75-100 miles a day) have never hurt a human, and are not aggressive toward each other. Resident orcas live in tightly bonded pods, the calves staying with their moms for LIFE, learning the language, social structure, & cultural traditions of the pod. Each orca community has a different language or dialect, and different traditions. Corky's pod (a Sea World whale), the Northern Resident community, has a "rubbing beach" they visit to rub their backs along smooth rocks in a shallow area. The Southern Resident orcas (Lolita is the last survivor of 50+ So. Residents captured) have traditions such as playing with kelp, wearing salmon on their heads & bodies, etc. These are amazing, intelligent, social, cultural communities that researchers are just beginning to understand.
Unfortunately, the Southern Resident community is now on the Endangered Species List, endangered because their population is so small they may not survive. The first big blow to their population was in the 1960's & '70's, when the marine park industry captured 1/3 to 1/2 of the entire So. Resident population, with many orcas being killed during the captures. After the captures the population was down to 71. The population has increased some but fluctuated and is now only at 86. These orcas now face other threats - lack of salmon and too much pollution, but the removal of such a large percentage of this population to perform for humans is what first sent them down the road to being endangered.
Last week Federal fisheries officials released their plan to help Puget Sound's orcas but said they won't protect some waters that are important to the killer whales: the Sound's shoreline out to 20 feet depth, Hood Canal and the Pacific Coast. Some property rights advocates say helping orcas survive is unnecessary.
The complete recovery plan can be found here
The recovery plan included this quote:
One Southern Resident whale from the live-capture era, known as Lolita and a member of L pod, remains alive in captivity at the Miami Seaquarim. Efforts have been made to raise support to relocate this whale to the wild and reunite her with the Southern Residents, although similar captive release efforts, involving one killer whale (e.g., Keiko) and other delphinids, have been largely unsuccessful. Lolita was captured in 1970 prior to the establishment of the MMPA and therefore, does not fall under the jurisdiction of NMFS."
The example of Keiko is often used to claim that returning orcas to the wild doesn't work. This overlooks the fact that Keiko was never taken to the vicinity where he was captured, off the east coast of Iceland (he was allowed to swim off the south coast of Iceland, 200 miles from where he was captured) so the orcas he found, but never remained with, were most likely unrelated foreigners to him. The key to any return to the ocean is to return the whale to its family, or it won't work. As we all know, Lolita's family is seen on a regular basis in the Pacific Northwest.