The Loneliest Killer Whale

By Elizabeth Skinner

No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Have you ever watched Free Willy? If not, let me summarize it for you. An orca named Willy was stolen from his family and taken to a marine park. He lived in a tank that was way too small for him, forced to perform in front of crowds. Eventually a teenage boy came along and freed him, back into the ocean, back with his family. Happily ever after, right? I know what you must be thinking – that’s a movie, what does this have to do with the real world? Well, art imitates life: the captive orca that played Willy, Kieko, had a very similar experience. He was taken from his family, forced to perform until enough people watched the movies, and guess what, he was released back into the wild! Crazy, right? Kieko got to live the rest of his life with his pod in the ocean. But what if this wasn’t the case for every orca out there?

Tokitae, or Lolita, is nicknamed the “World’s Loneliest Orca. ” She is an unfortunate case of an orca that fell through the cracks of the public eye. She was actually a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, which are currently endangered and only now protected by the Endangered Species Act. In 1970, at the age of 4, Tokitae was brutally taken from her pod off the coast of BC and Washington Island. That year, 90 orcas were taken from their homes and sold to marine parks. That day in particular, seven orcas were abducted. Tokitae is the last remaining survivor. She was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for $6,000, where she was named Lolita. 

Lolita has been forced to perform daily since then, doing the same routine every day in the name of human entertainment. She lives in the smallest orca tank in the world. 80 feet long, 20 feet deep, and just 35 feet wide. About 56,000 cubic feet small. For comparison, the average Olympic-sized pool is 88,000 cubic feet. Her tank is 20 feet deep and Lolita is 20 feet long. “She’s lived there for 50 years. It’s ridiculous,” were the words of Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. She can’t even stay vertically in her own tank, not to mention the amount of harm this does to her sensitive skin. Being in Florida, Lolita is constantly under the harsh rays of the sun, suffering from sunburn and other skin complications. Since the 1980s, she has been experiencing pterygium, an eye condition which causes growths on the cornea due to exposure to ultraviolet rays. She has to have a daily eye drop administered.

Lolita hasn’t seen one of her own species since the 80s. Hugo, her fellow tank mate. The orca that was left behind. He died from a brain injury after repeatedly beating his head on the side of their tank. Between sink or swim, Lolita chose sink; she lies lifeless in her tank, barely moving, only coming up for air. In the wild, orcas travel an average of 64km a day, basically always moving. How can an orca go from always moving to just lying there? Orcas don’t even sleep, they don’t ever normally lie still in water.

She lives with dolphins too, who are constantly attacking her. There were 52 separate incidents in 2015, escalating to the point where she had to be seen by medical teams and given antibodies to prevent infection. Lolita doesn’t get nearly as much stimulation as she should and has no relationships with any trainers. She has the lowest number of training sessions and relationship-building exercises. She has damaged teeth from grinding on the side of the cement tank out of boredom. She has outlived all of her offspring. Ultimately, Lolita is simply going crazy from being in isolation. She shows signs of zoochosis, repetitive behaviors, such as rubbing her body on the sides of the tanks all the time.

Lolita is now 56 years old and her health is declining. There were many opportunities to release Lolita back home. Her mom is even still alive today. Orcas have specific family bonds; pods are families, and you never leave your pod, your family. Every orca has a specific cry, able to be identified by other members. They could release Lolita back to her family.

Many advocacy groups have protested in front of the Miami Seaquarium, where Lolita has been for a very long time. Signs reading “Don’t support the Miami Seaprison” and “Lolita misses her mommy” are just a few examples. When looking at the Miami Seaquarium on Instagram, I scrolled for a good 10 minutes and couldn’t find one post I could comment on. They know what they are doing, but what they aren’t doing is anything to help Lolita.

Last weekend, a whistleblower announced that Lolita was suffering from pneumonia. Lolita is sick and alone. This cannot go on any longer for Lolita or any orca out there in similar conditions. They need to be transferred to places that are better suited for them. Lolita was lucky. She was born in the wild and developed some survival skills. Some orcas who were born in captivity never had a chance to experience freedom the way they are supposed to. Orcas aren’t animals that belong in a cage; they belong in the wild, with their families. Currently, there are a total of 59 orcas in captivity all over the world, and they need our help. They don’t belong in tanks, trapped.

Please take the time to read further into the stories of the orcas that are currently in captivity.  For more information about Lolita, click here