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Releasability Chapter 11

A Review of the Releasability of Long-Term Captive Orcas

Chapter 11

The goal of this report is to bring about an understanding in principle among the decision-makers who will design the future of the Seaquarium or any development on that site that Lolita is at serious risk every day that she remains at the Seaquarium, and that the best way to enhance her well-being is to allow the orca to return home.

Two organizations, closely allied with one another to help Keiko, are capable of carrying out the actual rehabilitation and release. The first and most obvious is the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation (FWKF), led by Seattle entrepreneur Craig McCaw. Since early 1994 when McCaw expressed interest in helping Keiko return to his home waters, the message has been clear that a strong measure of success must be realized with Keiko prior to turning the attention and resources of the Foundation toward any other candidate for release.

As of June 9 of this year, when the government of Iceland officially approved of Keiko's rehabilitation in that country, the way has been clear for Keiko to return to Icelandic waters in the late summer or early fall of 1998. Biologically, Keiko has surpassed almost all expectations in his recovery to the full bloom of health, and in his ability to catch live fish, use echolocation and to call out in his family's native vocalizations. He has been found to be disease-free by a team of six veterinarians appointed by the USDA. There seems little doubt that he will successfully readapt to his home waters, that he will be capable of swimming free within months, and that ultimately his family will recognize him and accept him to swim among them. In case he is unable to rejoin his family for any reason, achievement of the Foundation's goal will be realized in his retirement in his native waters. Indisputable success for Keiko is immanent.

When there is no further doubt that Keiko has completed his rehabilitation process and is thriving in his home waters, McCaw has made it clear that he will assist other whales and dolphins that are candidates for similar programs. As reported in the February 15, 1998 Portland Oregonian (Appendix R):
McCaw's original $2 million anonymous donation to the Free Willy foundation was a down payment on a larger vision: the creation of a world-class program that would do what no other had ever done—routinely rehabilitate captive and injured marine mammals for return to the wild.
Having brought Keiko back from the brink of death to resounding good health since his arrival in Oregon in January, 1996, the FWKF staff of marine mammal specialists has mastered the principles and procedures for rehabilitating an orca. Having plenty of room to move in cool, natural seawater, allowing him to direct his own behavior while giving him strenuous yet playful companionship, as well as volumes of other lessons learned, have proven their value in restoring him to good health and preparing him for his native habitat. This new knowledge can now be put to use for Lolita. Lolita's rehabilitation, however, does not require the facility in Oregon. She can be placed directly into a sea pen in her well-protected inland waters. Her family is well known and is monitored on a daily basis, so follow-up observations would involve little additional effort. Relative to Keiko's program, Lolita's retirement/release would be a logistical picnic.

The other organization that is capable of organizing and implementing Lolita's rehab/release is The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), which has contributed $1 million to Keiko's release. The president of HSUS, Paul Irwin, sits on the board of the FWKF. In October, 1995, HSUS sponsored a two-day conference in Seattle titled: Speaking for Whales and Dolphins—The Case Against Captivity. The primary marine mammal expert at HSUS is Dr. Naomi Rose, a field researcher of wild orca populations and a specialist in rehab and release of captive cetaceans (Rose, 1995).

It is clear that the financial resources and the technical expertise can be made available to carry out Lolita's rehabilitation program toward retirement or release. The missing ingredient is agreement in principle with the management of the Seaquarium that the best course of action is to begin making arrangements for Lolita's return to her home waters. It is within the mission of both the FWKF and HSUS to conduct the logistics of the program, and one or both can be expected to come to the table to work out details with the Seaquarium. The Tokitae Foundation wishes only to foster discussions between the management of the Seaquarium and one or both of these organizations, and has no intention or expectation of conducting the program itself.

Support for orca releases is growing rapidly. In a poll last spring, 54 percent of Icelanders surveyed were in favor of allowing Keiko to return to their country to be released. Iceland is a country of increasing environmental awareness, and ecotourism is growing. Some see the potential not only for profit but also for international goodwill coming from the Keiko project.

In Newport, community members and businesses that have profited from Keiko's presence are gearing up for a busy summer. They expect the whale's fans to converge on the small city as enthusiastically as sea lions during a herring run. Keiko arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium on January 7, 1996. That year, 1.32 million people pushed through the doors for a look at the huge black and white mammal with the droopy dorsal fin; that was up from 600,000 aquarium visitors the year before. In 1997, the number leveled out at 803,000 visitors.

It is hoped that the biological viability of the plan to move Lolita to her home waters has been established in this report, especially by contrast with the dangers to her life if she continues as a performing orca. But in order to generate discussion of Lolita's possible move, it may be helpful to offer some ideas for the future of the Seaquarium. Since Lolita is the main attraction at the Seaquarium, her departure will probably mean the closing of the park in its present form. Therefore this is a moment of tremendous opportunity for the creation of a public attraction that is exciting and popular and that is also in keeping with the visions and wishes of the residents of Key Biscayne, the City of Miami, and Miami-Dade County, as well as the state agencies that will help craft a recommendation to the legislature.

The residents of Key Biscayne have expressed their opposition to traditional amusement park activites, such as roller coasters, water slides, wave pools, and other water theme park attractions. Nor does the prospect of a variety of retail outlets and restaurants have much appeal for those residents. The sheer volume of traffic on Rickenbacker Causeway is also very much an issue. It appears that the local homeowners are interested in seeing a park develop on that site that they can be proud of, and that does not disrupt either access to their homes and businesses nor the oceanside peacefulness that is the atmosphere they wish to preserve.

However, it seems almost inevitable that there will be some kind of public facility on that prime location, although perhaps even that assumption will be up for discussion. If indeed the consensus opinion is that a public attraction of some sort is called for at the Seaquarium site, it will be necessary to conjure up a coherent vision of a park that suits the above criteria and is also financially viable, which means it must have popular appeal.

The expertise and interest at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, next door to the Seaquarium is available to help design a fascinating, exciting and highly educational attraction. Just a few ideas include simulated nature trips, an IMAX theatre, live video hook-ups to animals in the wild, plus films, lectures, discussions, photo exhibitions, all placing the participant in the sweep of nature in a marine setting, gliding along with dolphins, manatees, or orcas. Imagine settling into a contoured seat surrounded by a wrap-around screen, in an undersea world lit by dim blue-green light flickering with reflected sunlight. Manta rays, a variety of fish and sharks stream by, accompanied by the ambient sounds of the sea emanating from various directions. Gradually you hear faint calls. The calls grow in volume as the fish move faster before your eyes. Soon the white patches on orca bodies appear, along with vague outlines of killer whales. As they flow toward you and then away, you see the matriarchs and the generations that follow. The majestic adult males appear along the periphery. Now and then each of them makes a distinct call to the others.

The imagineers of today's theme parks and aquariums can create whole undersea environments that are vastly entertaining, a thrill to experience, and a deeply emotional educational opportunity.

While marine parks that display performing whales and dolphins are in decline (Appendix I), other aquariums and marine parks have sprung up across the country that have embraced an environmental philosophy and have flourished in recent years. The New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden recently unveiled Cyberfin, a virtual reality attraction that simulates the experience of swimming with dolphins (Appendix T). In mid-June, 1998, the Long Beach, CA Aquarium of the Pacific opened to a public eager to experience the living Pacific Ocean. Nashville, New Orleans, and Tampa have each opened modern, high tech aquariums recently.

A Canadian model for this approach emerged from a 1995 decision by the Biodôme of Montréal not to display live beluga whales, citing conservation issues and the desire to be sensitive to the opinions of environmental groups voicing opposition to keeping whales in captivity. Instead the Biodôme has installed a thematic display depicting the white whales of the St. Lawrence called Belugas: The Next Wave, featuring a variety of innovative presentation techniques.

Increasingly, aquariums are bringing the natural world into modern lives via wildlife films and live links with wild habitats. The real lives of animals can now be revealed. Orca researcher Dr. Paul Spong, commenting on plans to build an aquarium in China, says in a letter to Chinese officials:
This summer, a live radio link from the wild will enable the public at large, and visitors to the Vancouver Aquarium, to listen to the undersea acoustic environment and the fascinating calls of orca whales as they communicate with each other. The project has already created a wave of media and public interest around the world. It is a truly educational development, and does no harm to the animals involved. By so doing, it points the way to the future. Soon, aquariums and zoos will feature live video and acoustic links to the natural world, complementing vivid documentary films about Nature... enriching the facilities which house them, and the public. A concrete example of this trend comes from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This new facility rejected the display of captive whales and dolphins, and instead features a magnificent living kelp forest and a live link to the local undersea habitat. It is so successful that people often have to wait in line to get in.
Lolita could be a living presence in Miami for many years to come after her move to the Northwest, as she first recovers and builds her strength and familiarity in the waters of her birth, then is seen swimming and cavorting amidst her kin in the currents she knows so well. Her voice and images of her travels could come directly to a presentation facility on Virginia Key, a main attraction among a wide array of fascinating interactive and multi-sensory exhibitry.

All parties agree that Lolita's well-being is of paramount importance. Given the information contained in this report, it is conservative to conclude that Lolita can be transported to a netted sea pen in her native waters, the inland sea of Washington and British Columbia, with the options of remaining under human care for the rest of her life or, if a panel of informed experts so advises, rejoining her family of birth.

Chapter 10 | Contents | Chapter 12

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