Free Lolita! A Whale Story

For more than a decade, Howard Garrett has worked tirelessly out of his home on Whidbey Island, Wash., to return an orca whale named Lolita to her native waters. In 1995--inspired by the campaign to release Keiko, the "Free Willy" whale--he teamed with local politicians, offering the Florida aquarium where Lolita works a million dollars to reunite her with the pod of whales she grew up with, off the coast of Washington state. In 1997, he spent two years in Miami--unpaid--working to garner public attention for Lolita's cause; after nearly four decades in captivity, she's served her time, Garrett believes. Every year since then, his organization, the nonprofit advocacy group Orca Network, has held a beachside commemoration of the day Lolita was plucked from her family in the icy waters of Puget Sound.

But 12 years is a long time for anyone to stay committed--even in the Pacific Northwest, where the orca is treated as an icon. "There have been times I've wanted to give up," Garrett says. "Everyone keeps telling us it's hopeless, and even when there's a surge of enthusiasm, eventually it dwindles."

In late November, however, Garrett got a call that, in spite of his usual doubts, stirred the fight inside him. Raul Julia-Levy, the Hollywood producer and son of actor Raul Julia, wanted to sign on to help free Lolita, and with him, promised to bring every last Hollywood contact he could persuade. He immediately put Garrett on the phone with the wife of Jean Claude Van Damme, and within days, had a list that included Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford and even 50 Cent. Now Levy says he's got a benefit concert in the works that will include R&B singer Truth Hurts, Snoop Dogg and 50 (who did not return NEWSWEEK requests for comment, though Levy says "the man loves animals like you have no idea"). Nearly a dozen local politicians have signed on, as well. "We have some of the most powerful Hollywood producers behind this campaign, and I have spoken with some of the most prominent scientists in this field," Levy says. "This beautiful animal does not deserve to die in a stinky little tank, and we are not going to take less than a full victory."

The problem, of course, is that not everyone feels the way Levy and his Hollywood buddies do. The debate over Lolita has at times divided the Puget Sound community, and many scientists have been hesitant to endorse Garrett's cause. The Miami Seaquarium, where Lolita has lived for the past 37 years, has long been unwilling to consider the idea of releasing her and is calling the latest campaign a "publicity grab" by uninformed activists. The park's general manager, Andrew Hertz (the son of the park's owner, Arthur Hertz), contends that Lolita is healthy and happy--performing two shows a day--and quips that "you can't make a 7,000 pound animal do what she doesn't want to do."

Hertz says Lolita receives daily checkups, and that--despite criticism of her living conditions in the past--she receives the "best care of any orca in the world." He points to a 2004 inspection report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that says Lolita "appears to be healthy and well-adjusted to her environment" despite a pool that "appears small." (The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service states that the primary enclosure for a killer whale must have a minimum horizontal dimension of no less than 48 feet in either direction. Lolita's tank is about 35 feet on either side of its sizable middle island--which means it meets the specifications when the total space is tallied.) "Lolita is home," says Hertz. "This is where she lives, where she's with people who care for her and love her, and wouldn't ever do anything to hurt her."

That may be the case, but the story of her capture is an easy tear-jerker. On Aug. 8, 1970, at the age of about three, Lolita (then called Tokitae) and her extended family of more than 100 orcas--her pod--were gathered in Puget Sound when capture boats and aircraft began hurling explosives into the water to herd them into a small cove. The orcas had been through this before, and split into two groups: the females and their young stayed underwater and tried to escape to the north, while the rest acted as decoys and headed east. At first the distraction worked--until the first group had to come up for air. While the rest of her family watched, Lolita and six other babies were lifted onto rubber mats on flatbed trucks; they were sold to marine parks and aquariums across the country.

Whale capture was big business in the 1960s and early 1970s, especially in the Pacific Northwest. According to the National Marine Fisheries Services, about 50 orcas are known to have been killed or captured in that region between 1965 and 1973. The last whale capture in Puget Sound took place in 1976. Ralph Munro, an assistant to the governor of Washington, happened to be sailing in the region at the time. He alerted his boss, Gov. Dan Evans, who sued Sea World--the amusement park owned by Anheuser-Busch--whose contractors had used planes and small explosives to herd orcas into their nets. All of the whales from that capture were eventually released, and a Seattle district court ruled that the use of those planes and explosives had violated the company's permit to collect the whales. While capturing orcas is still not illegal in Washington, doing so requires a permit--a political nonstarter in the whale-crazy state.

When she first arrived in Miami, Lolita had company. She was placed with a young male named Hugo, who, Garrett says, had been taken from Lolita's family 18 months earlier. For 10 years, the two orcas performed together as the Seaquarium's star attraction. But as Hugo matured, critics say he became too big for his tank, and he repeatedly bashed his head against the walls and windows, says Michael Royce, a former Seaquariam show master who worked with both whales. Hugo died of a brain aneurism in 1980.

Today, Lolita is the only known survivor of that captured group, and her family--all members of the Southern Resident Orca Community, found in Puget Sound--have been added to the list of endangered species. At about age 40, the 20-foot, 7,000-pound female spends her days in a tank that's 80 feet across at its widest point and 20 feet deep. The whale would have to swim back and forth across her pool more than 6,000 times to keep up with her fellow orcas in the wild--who swim more than 100 miles on some days and can dive as deep as 500 feet. Many experts are quick to call those accommodations "cruel," as Bob Wood, president of the Seattle-based Global Research and Rescue, puts it--and Royce actually testified to the USDA about the small size of the tank back in 1978. (The tank has not changed since then.) At the same time, both admit that turning Lolita loose has the potential to end up as hazardous as it could be liberating. "While some activists have romantic visions of [Lolita] romping happily in the ocean enjoying her new-found freedom, I see [her] experiencing total shock as she is dropped into the hostile world of nature," says Royce. "My hope is that she can be transferred to a much larger tank."

Orcas are highly intelligent and intensely social creatures, traveling and hunting in family units known as pods that never break up. Years of study have shown that family cohesion is the cornerstone of orca communities around the world: children stay with their mothers their entire lives. Each orca community also has its own diet, rituals, mating patters and language. (In 1995, "Dateline NBC" put that language to the test: Lolita made national television when they played a recording of her family to her. "She literally leaned over so her ear was as close as she could get it," says Garrett.)

But after 37 years in a controlled environment, there are major obstacles to readapting to that life in the ocean. To begin with, Lolita must be free of viruses, bacteria and parasites that could transfer to other animals before a move is even considered. If she is, there's the question of whether her body can handle the pollution of the Puget Sound region--a known PCB hotspot--after years in a tank. Scientists must then ensure she has the strength to hunt for food (she's seen nothing but filleted fish for years)--and that, once reunited with her family, she could keep up with them.

In addition, there's the stress of a coast-to-coast transport, the necessary approval from various government agencies, and making sure that, after nearly four decades in captivity, she won't go up to boats hoping someone will feed her. Lolita has already outlived the normal orca lifespan in captivity, which is estimated at about 30 years for females and less for males. But in the wild, females have life spans and reproductive periods similar to that of humans. "As a vet, my guiding light is to do what's best for the animal," says Dr. Peter Schroeder, an orca expert who has helped develop marine-mammal programs for the Navy, and at one point had 66 dolphins under his care. "The possibility of her dying in the next 10 years, of old age, are pretty high. The stress of a transport may kill her."

A common criticism of the fight to free Lolita is tragic story of Keiko, the orca who was released from captivity amid the "Free Willy" craze of the 1990s. Keiko starred in that movie, after years in a rundown Mexico City aquarium where he suffered ill health. But unlike the fictional character he played, Keiko didn't have the same fairy-tale ending: five years after being released in Iceland, he died, alone, after settling in a Norwegian fjord.

The difference with Lolita, advocates say, is the family factor--crucial, say experts, to any whale's release. There haven't been many to study. But looking back on Keiko, many scientists believe too little was known about his family history to successfully reintegrate him with his pod. Lolita's family, on the other hand, are some of the most studied whales in the world: a group of 43 L Pod orcas that can be found at regular intervals around the region. "The whole key to this is whether or not the animal will be accepted by its family," says Wood of Global Research and Rescue.

For his part, Levy is aware of the obstacles, but remains confident they can be overcome. Transporting a whale across country isn't cheap--but with Hollywood's help, that may no longer be a problem. "Trust me, we are going to get [Lolita] out of that tank," says Levy. "It's inevitable."