Lolita, Come Home

Message from Seattle to Miami: Give us back our whale. Seattle wants Lolita, star of the Miami Seaquarium tourist attraction for the past 31 years and the nation’s longest-performing killer whale. More than 5,000 people have signed petitions and hundreds of children have scrawled crayon drawings in protest. They are urging a resistant Arthur Hertz—chairman of the Seaquarium’s parent company, Wometco Enterprises of Coral Gables, Florida—to return his graceful money-maker to Washington’s Puget Sound, where she was captured in 1970 at age six.

To Miami, Lolita is a leaping crowd-pleaser. But to Seattle, Lolita is a potential savior of a Pacific Northwest symbol. The number of wild orcas in Puget Sound has plummeted from 98 to 80 in just six years, due to three presumed reasons—a lack of salmon to eat, a buildup of PCBs in their bodies from spending decades in toxic waters, and stress from being viewed too closely by motorboaters. Healthy Lolita, at age 37, is young enough by wild orca standards to mother a few calves—boosting hopes for the dwindling population.

Lolita lives in a cramped and algae-stained 500,000-gallon tank at the Miami Seaquarium. Environmentalists want her returned to her native Puget Sound.© Kenneth Balcomb

"Nobody can say with certainty she could produce a calf if returned in the next few years, but I think it’s likely," says Howard Garrett, past president of the nonprofit Orca Conservancy in Greenbank, Washington. Returning Lolita is humane, adds Garrett. She could live to 60, or maybe even 90, in the wild. Yet, she is near the end of the typical captive orca’s lifespan. Lolita still makes squeaky calls unique to her family, and biologists believe she would be welcomed like a long-lost relative, says naturalist Cindy Hansen, a whale-watching narrator for Washington-based Mosquito Fleet.

Although a FedEx district manager offered to fly Lolita home, the Seaquarium has declined. "Lolita is home," says Andrew Hertz, a Seaquarium vice president. He acknowledges, however, that she deserves a pool five times bigger than her current 500,000-gallon tank. A $17.5 million pool is expected to open within two years. Whether it will please critics remains to be seen.

"Lolita is dependent on being hand-fed daily, and she has lost her abilities to hunt for food. She shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins—animals that could be part of her diet if she were in the wild," wrote Seaquarium General Manager Robert Martinez in a letter published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The protesters are undaunted. Hansen has mailed hundreds of colorful children’s drawings to Wometco. Wrote one child: "We saw Lolita’s family today. Please send her home."