In 2007, my wife, Lynn and I took a trip to the San Juan Islands. Located off the coast of Washington State, the surrounding waters are the home of three specific family units of orcas. I had visited the area twice before, and if you have a travel “bucket list”, make sure it includes this extraordinary place.
After the resident orcas, the second most remarkable aspect of the San Juans is its people - and it’s a very close second. While Miamians spend the summer months casually discussing Bermuda highs, the El Nino effect, and the so-called dirty sides of storms, San Juan Islanders speak whale. Superpods, matrilines, J-pod, spyhopping, echolocation - these are terms that are bandied about as part of the local vernacular.
The orcas are a part of who they are, and they literally know them by name. For the Native American peoples of the area, they are more than just a part of their world. They are part of their very identity, their spirituality, their culture.
Over the next few days, we hit the waters on whale-watching boats crowded with fellow tourists. We saw quite a few of the resident orcas. Each had a numerical designation, along with a given name. There was Ruffles, “the big guy” of J-pod. And Mike. Apparently he’s “a character”. Oreo. Calypso. Racer. Matea. Eclipse. Ocean Sun.
This last whale, Ocean Sun, was causing quite a stir. Everyone scrambled for a picture. While we were dying to know what made this whale particularly special, we didn’t want to look like clueless tourists. We figured we’d look it up later, and of course, we forgot. It wasn’t until years later, that we put the pieces together.
Ocean Sun, known by scientists as L25, is widely believed to be Lolita’s mother. It was these waters, these people, this family, this mother, from which Lolita was taken.
Don’t Call Her Lolita
Lolita is a member of a community of orcas known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales. As of December 2015, there were approximately 84 left in the wild. This community is built on a matrilineal system, meaning groups of whales who are connected by maternal descent. A group of matrilines that share a maternal ancestor is called a pod. Think of it like a huge, close,extended family, minus the black sheep or the crazy uncle.
The Southern Resident Killer Whale community consists of three pods: J-pod, K-pod, and L-pod. All three pods spend much of the year in the waters of the Puget Sound in Washington State. Lolita was - Lolita is - a member of L-pod. When she was born, she was given the name “Tokitae”, meaning “nice day, pretty colors” in the Coast Salish Native American language. To this day, there are many San Juan Islanders who refuse to acknowledge the name she received upon her arrival in Miami.
It’s very common to hear people say “family is everything.” I realize I’m quibbling over terms, but let’s face it - while family is very important, it isn’t technically “everything”. Even close knit families consist of individuals with jobs, friends, hobbies, passions, diversions, and guilty pleasures. With the exception of mating, an orca pod does everything together. They communicate using vocalizations that are unique to every pod; in other words, each pod has its own distinct “language."
Members of a pod exist within a complex and highly social infrastructure, one in which hunting, traveling, sleeping, and the raising of calves is done as a family unit. Mature males briefly leave their natal pods to mate. Yet once the process of mating is over, these quintessential mama’s boys move right back in with Mom. They stay with her until she dies, and are so closely bonded to them, that they often die shortly after their mothers do.
While mothers are the primary caregivers for their calves, the entire pod is involved. The extended family will teach, protect, or simply give Mom a break while she participates in a hunt. If a mother dies unexpectedly, another female, often an older, post-reproductive female, will raise the orphaned calf. Humanity still struggles to execute the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. Orcas had this down to a science while humans were still struggling with the concept of making fire. In their world, family - literally - is everything. And separation from said family is not a minor issue.
Back in the day, it was common practice to capture orca calves from the wild, and sell them to marine mammal parks. On August 8th, 1970, Lollita and her family were travelling through Puget Sound when they were spotted by a capture team. Using speed boats, aircraft, and underwater explosives, the capture team separated the mothers from their calves, herding the terrified babies into their nets. In the course of the capture, four calves drowned trying to escape the nets and return to their mothers.
Additionally, a mother drowned trying to reach her calf. Seven babies survived, and were sold to marine parks throughout the world. One was sent to Miami, where she remains to this day. She was given the name Lolita. She is the only remaining Puget Sound orca still living in a captive environment. The L-pod calves that were captured alongside her all died in captivity within five years of being taken from Puget Sound.
Forgive me. It’s a long story. But knowing Lolita’s background is crucial to understanding why the plan to retire her is viable. Italian author Umberto Eco once said “To survive, you must tell stories.” For Lolita to continue to survive, we must tell her story.
Lolita’s Retirement Plan
Before diving into the specifics of the plan, a crucial aspect of said plan must be emphasized. If Lolita is to retire, she will need help from all of us - including her caretakers at the Miami Seaquarium. These individuals do their best to ensure she is cognitively enriched and physically fit. If you’re planning to demonize them in the comment section, please understand that this will NOT help Lolita.
It is your Constitutional right to say what you like, but cool heads and collaborative efforts are the keys to getting this done. The Seaquarium has been involved in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of dozens of injured manatees and sea turtles. Please, please be fair, and keep it civil.
The first step of Lolita’s retirement plan is to train Lolita to swim into a stretcher specifically designed for the transport of marine mammals. This will be done by the trainers who have worked with her throughout her stay at the Seaquarium. The more comfortable she is with this behavior, the easier her transition will be.
Next, Lolita will be examined by a team of marine mammal veterinarians and pathologists to ensure she is in perfect health. Her immune system must be healthy. She will need to be thoroughly screened for any virus, bacteria, fungus, parasite or any other pathogen that could potentially endanger her health as she begins her journey. Furthermore, she must be clear of any communicable diseases that could put the health of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population at risk. Since her caretakers routinely insist she is healthy, this should not be an issue. Just the same, all precautions will be taken to ensure both Lolita and her community remain safe.
Once cleared for relocation, Lolita’s caretakers will lead her onto the stretcher. A crane will lift her onto a cradle that is half-filled with iced-water, and secured to the trailer of a truck. The truck will take her to Miami International Airport. Still in her cradle of iced-water, she will be loaded onto a cargo aircraft and flown to Washington State. Her most trusted caregivers will be with her throughout the flight.
Upon her arrival in Washington, a truck will transport Lolita to Bellingham Harbor. The truck will be driven onto a barge, which will then be towed to a seapen at Orcas Island. She will be in her iced-down water cradle the entire time.
Let’s take a breather. By now, you may be thinking either a) this is crazy. It will never work, or b) this sounds like an awful lot of stress for poor Lolita! But it’s important to note that the world’s top marine mammal parks move orcas using this process all the time. While it sounds to us like a monumental undertaking, it’s the standard operating procedure for the folks work with these animals every day. We call it impossible, they call it Tuesday. Go figure. Let’s move on.
Once she arrives at Orcas Island, a crane will lift Lolita and sling out of the water cradle, and into her seapen. Here she will begin to re-learn how to catch live fish, dive deeply, swim in a large, natural body of water, and build up the strength and stamina she will need to swim with her natal pod - if she chooses to do so.
Since her family spends so much time in this area, she will likely be able to hear their calls. During this time, she will still be in the care of the people she has known throughout most of her life. Her diet will be supplemented with the food she is accustomed to eating. She will not be deprived of food or human contact.
I cannot stress this enough. Lolita will NOT be dumped in the sea and left to fend for herself! This is not on par with abandoning the family chihuahua in the middle of the Everglades. Her reintroduction will happen on her terms, and her timetable.
While “Free Lolita” makes for a trendy hashtag, I suspect it may have created some confusion. A better analogy is a retirement plan. She will be returned to her native waters, and from there, she can choose to spend said retirement as she likes. She can rejoin the highly social family group into which she was born, or she can stay within easy reach of human companionship if that is what she wants or needs.
Lolita will remain in the seapen until she consistently displays good health. If she is once again cleared of any underlying health problems, a specific permit will be requested to reintroduce Lolita to the open water, and potentially, to her family. Again, this will only happen after a rigorous veterinary workup ensures the health and safety of both her and her community.
If a green light is given by the veterinary and scientific team, Lolita will begin what is known as boat-recall training. This will teach her to return to the boat within her seapen whenever she hears an acoustic signal. This behavior will be taught to ensure her safety as she learns to explore larger areas. By this time, it is hoped she will be catching live fish, though again, her diet will be supplemented.
As her stamina improves, the size of the seapen will increase so that boat-recall training can take place in a larger area. This will get Lolita accustomed to swimming longer distances for longer periods of time. If at some point she becomes fully integrated with her family, these exercises will no longer be required.
Once Lolita regains her stamina, and proves she can consistently and successfully catch her own food, the seapen will be opened. She will be allowed free range of the surrounding waters, and given the opportunity to reconnect with L-pod -her family - should she choose to do so.
In the meantime, a permanent care and companionship station will be fully staffed, and maintained at a location with which she is familiar. If she so chooses, she can interact with humans, acquire additional food, or just relax in the seapen. She will be free to make her own decisions, free to do, or not do whatever she pleases.
A far more detailed description of Lolita’s retirement plan can be found by clicking here. It’s been laid out and thought through by some of the leading experts in the fields of orca biology and behavior.
No one wants to work until the day they die. Yet we foist this very expectation onto a self-aware, highly social being whose family was broken for the sake of our entertainment. Returning her to said family will require us to put our selfish agendas and petty differences aside. The communities and nations of the San Juan Islands have wanted her returned for decades. Scientists believe it can - and should - be done.
We will need their help too. But the key to Lolita’s successful retirement lies in the very same waters from which she was taken. Next time, I’ll explain what I mean by that - and why I think the plan to retire Lolita will work.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic
Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Send him an email by clicking here.
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