News broke a couple of weeks ago that plans are being formulated to release the captive orca known as Lolita back into the wild, sort of.
Lolita has been held in a small tank in a Florida marine park ever since she was captured in Puget Sound in 1970. During the 1960s and 1970s dozens of animals were taken from the Northwest Coast for sale to amusement parks and aquariums around the world. Lolita is the last survivor of that shameful episode.
If Lolita’s tank was a jail, then plans to relocate her to a large sea pen back in the San Juan Islands can be seen as a kind of halfway house. Will she ever make the transition back to living freely in the wild? Time will tell. Meanwhile, her advocates believe that moving her to a huge open-water corral, and the risks that entails, is better than living out her days at the marine park.
Lolita’s story brings up memories of Springer, the young orca about whom Gil Hewlett and I wrote a book back in 2007. Springer was a captive whale as well, but her fate was far different from Lolita’s. She was just two years old when she got separated from her family in BC and wandered south down Puget Sound to the Seattle area early in 2002. Scientists from both the US and Canada decided that Springer would not survive without human intervention and put in place a plan to rescue her. A team co-ordinated by the Vancouver Aquarium plucked her from the sea, placed her in a facility where she received food and medical treatment, then transported her north to a pen in an isolated bay near Telegraph Cove on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
Almost immediately the young whale made contact with members of her family who were making their annual visit to Johnstone Strait. Reintegration was successful – the first time it had ever happened – and Springer now revisits the area every year.
The contrasts between Springer and Lolita are many, not least the difference in their ages. Would Lolita know how to survive in the wild? Would her family recognize her or welcome her back? The challenges are daunting. Meanwhile, it is hard to deny that getting her out of her present situation and back into the ocean would be a positive first step.
UPDATE: The Miami Seaquarium announced on August 18, 2023 that Lolita had died in capitivity of renal failure.