Lolita's Capture

Lolita's life before capture

Lolita today

Five whales, including four baby whales, drowned during this capture
In early 1966 a Southern Resident female was harpooned from a helicopter while swimming with her small calf in Puget Sound. The calf was intended to be a companion for a teenaged male orca named Namu, a northern resident orca who had been caught in Canadian waters in 1965. Namu was the first orca to be put on display and to develop a trusting relationship with a human. Namu was advertised widely in his show pen on the Seattle waterfront. He disproved the popular belief that killer whales were inherently dangerous, and he demonstrated that people would pay big bucks to see "tamed and trained" killer whales. That potential to generate revenues at the gate started the gold rush to capture orcas for shipment worldwide.

The adult female, dying of her harpoon wounds, opened her blowhole and dove, drowning herself. The calf was netted and hauled in to the pen, and given the name Shamu as a catchy name to go with Namu. But she was traumatized by the capture and her mother's violent death, and didn't get along with the orca or with Ted Griffin, the entrepreneur who owned and appeared with Namu. After a few months the little orphan orca was shipped to a new aquarium in San Diego called Sea World to become the original Shamu. That little orca died six years later, but by then many more young orcas had been caught and delivered to Sea World, where they were also named Shamu. The public was never told that each one was a replacement for a previous Shamu that had died young.

Just over a year later the first large-scale capture took place. A pod was herded into a cove in Puget Sound with speed boats and bombs like M-80s, and surrounded with nets. Five young ones were taken away that time, and three drowned during the capture operation. A year later another family was trapped. This time two were removed. One of those, a three-year-old male, was named Hugo and sent to the Miami Seaquarium. The bombs and nets and ropes and yelling men became a recurring trauma and a tragedy that the whales had come to expect. Time after time family members were forced into slings and onto flatbed trucks, and were driven away.

Lolita (first called Tokitae) was captured on August 8, 1970 in Penn Cove, Whidbey Island. She was one of seven young whales sold to marine parks around the world from this roundup of over 80 orcas conducted by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry, partners in a capture operation known as Namu, Inc.

Nets forced separations of mothers and babies Five whales, including four baby whales, drowned during this capture. The four drowned calves had their bellies slit, were filled with rocks, and weighted with chains and anchors to keep their deaths from coming to the attention of the public. Three of the carcasses washed up on the shore of Whidbey Island on November 18, 1970. Six years later, Sea World settled in court, agreeing to never again capture orcas in Washington State, to avoid publicly taking the blame.

Lolita was recorded to be about 14 feet long and 4-6 years old at capture, though witnesses say she was probably no more than 12 feet long and only 3-4 years old. She was sent to the Miami Seaquarium in Florida, where she arrived September 24, 1970 to be a playmate for the young male orca named Hugo who had been captured in Puget Sound in February, 1968. Hugo was from Lolita's clan, the Southern Resident community, but no one knew that at the time. For the first several weeks Hugo was kept in the present manatee tank, about a hundred yards away from Tokitae, because the park managers assumed they would fight. They called constantly to each other with their siren-like calls across the park grounds. Over the next ten years Hugo banged his head against the walls of his tank on many occasions, once slicing the tip of his rostrum off when he broke the thick glass of the viewing window. Veterinarian Jesse White sewed Hugo's severed rostrum back on.

Of the six other young whales, two were shipped to marine parks in Japan, and one each went to parks in Texas, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. They were all very young calves, but, except for Lolita, they all died within five years.

The whales tried and often succeeded in escaping the capture teams. They learned to recognize the engine sounds of the capture boats from miles away, causing the captors to continually change boats and engines. Decoy whales sometimes distracted the captors into "wild whale" chases while mothers with young offspring safely detoured away from the capture boats. But the captors increased the terror tactics, deploying aircraft and more and faster boats and tossing bombs as fast as they could light them with an acetylene torch. The captures of Southern resident orcas continued until 1973, although transient orcas were captured until 1976.

Many were captured using underwater bombs, speed boats and aircraft

By early 1970 at least 16 of Lolita's extended family, the Southern Resident community, had been hauled away and many others killed during captures. On August 8, the entire clan was headed north in Admiralty Inlet. Someone on a spotter plane saw them and soon fast catcher boats, led by Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin, were upon the whales. Speedboats raced in circles, bombs exploded. The orcas were herded northeast, around the southern tip of Whidbey Island. Orcas can swim over 30 miles per hour, but the boats were faster.

The intended destination was Holmes Harbor, but the whales split into two groups, causing confusion among the captors and slowing them down. Seeing several young whales headed east among the closest group, the men chose to concentrate on them. Only later did the planes find the mothers and calves headed north, probably intending to escape through Deception Pass. The capture boats managed to get ahead of the fleeing orcas in time to force them into Penn Cove, then into the farthest reaches of the cove, within sight of the Capt. Whidbey Inn. Soon seiners arrived to string long nets around the whales, then a floating pen was set up inside the seine net for the final separation of babies and juveniles from their mothers.

A few hours later the other group of whales that had escaped the initial capture came into Penn Cove. When the captors saw them, they quickly sent the seiners out to set another net around them. By now there were almost a hundred whales captured, including at least 12 between the ages of two and five, the right ages for shipping and training. The captors set about pushing the adults, first the males and then the mothers of young ones, out beyond the outside nets.

Nets forced separations of mothers and babies

By all accounts the whales were extremely agitated, both inside and outside the nets. They were breaching high out of the water and slapping their flukes and flippers, creating a background staccato of gunshot-like explosions. They repeatedly spyhopped as high as possible to see what was going on. Piercing, screaming vocalizations were heard incessantly both above and below water.

Soon after the nets were drawn shut four babies less than two years old charged into the net to rejoin their mothers and got caught in the nets. For a time they were in bodily contact with their mothers and other family members through the net, but as they twisted and convulsed to get free, the net wrapped tightly around them and they drowned. One of the mothers tried to force her way into the net, only to get tangled herself and also drown. The female's death was discovered by reporters when she drowned, but the carcasses of the babies were hidden from the public. They were weighted with rocks and wrapped in anchor chains, then taken away at night for secret disposal.

Meanwhile, calls were made to aquariums around the world to announce that killer whales were for sale. Dr. Jesse White, veterinarian for the Miami Seaquarium, came to Washington to select one to become a female companion for Hugo, the three year old male captured over a year earlier and sold to the Seaquarium. He admired a particular little female and soon chose her. Dr. White had visited a curio shop while in Seattle and saw the name Tokitae on a carving, a name he bestowed on the little whale who seemed "so courageous, and yet so gentle." In Miami she became a show business personality, and the owners didn't want people to know where she came from, so she needed a name that said Miami, not Seattle. Her stage name became Lolita.

In mid-November a trawler dragged the bodies of the drowned infants into its net. The captain of the fishing boat deposited the dead baby whales on a beach in front of a Seattle newspaper reporter, and the story was immediately told to the world. Six years later this discovery played a major role in a court decision that banned Sea World from ever capturing another killer whale in Washington State.

When Lolita arrived in Miami, she was reunited with Hugo, the young male captured at Carr Inlet a year earlier. Hugo and Lolita were probably closely related, though no one knew that at the time. For almost ten years they shared their tiny, clattering tank. Then in March of 1980, just about the time Hugo's adolescent hormones began to kick in at the age of about 15, he rammed the wall of the tank and died. The official report said he died of a brain aneurysm. Lolita, "so courageous yet so gentle," continued to perform her shows.

In 1987, the Society of Marine Mammalogists held its bi-annual conference in Miami. Ken Balcomb, founder and director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, knew that Lolita was from the Southern Community, because he had been studying just that population for over ten years. In 1987 Lolita was already the only survivor of the approximately 58 orcas that had been taken from Puget Sound.

Balcomb approached the Seaquarium with a novel proposal. Why not play some tapes of Lolita's pod to her, just to see, and record, what might happen? Some of the trainers thought it might be a neat idea, but the management, possibly sensing that too much sympathy for the whale would result from publicity surrounding the experiment, refused to allow it. Balcomb then proposed leasing Lolita temporarily to conduct the experiment. Nope.

Lolita suffers from boredom

In 1992 Balcomb proposed that the experiment be incorporated into the show as an "exciting new acoustic program." Hurricane Andrew had just blasted through the Seaquarium, electrocuting six sea lions in another tank, so Balcomb also offered to buy her, just in case the park had been put out of business. No deal.

Meanwhile, Lolita continues performing her shows by day, and bobbing listlessly between shows and all night long. Like all whales and dolphins, Lolita doesn't sleep. Cetaceans have to remain conscious to control their breathing.

Lolita's life before capture

Lolita today

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