FOR RETIRING THE ORCA
KNOWN AS LOLITA
TO HER NATIVE HABITAT
IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
THE MIAMI SEAQUARIUM
This draft proposal is submitted for discussion and revision in the assumption that we are all reasonable people who want the best for Lolita. All lines of inquiry indicate that moving Lolita from Miami to her home in the Pacific NW would be in her best interest.
The underlying assumption, evident throughout this draft proposal and the entire Lolita Retirement Plan, is that the owners of the Miami Seaquarium are responsible for Lolita's welfare, and that by cooperating in her retirement they will honor her service and demonstrate their affection for her. The sustained and willing assistance from trainers, veterinary staff and park management will be essential to ensure Lolita's transport and transition back to her native waters go as smoothly as possible. This proposal is intended to be the basis for substantive discussions and will be subject to suggestions and revisions by representatives of the Miami Seaquarium, the scientific advisory staff of the Lolita Retirement Plan, and officials involved in permitting processes.
Co-founder and president of Orca Network
The Lolita Retirement Plan
Updated June 24, 2012
Executive Summary: How to safely return Lolita to her home waters
All concerned parties agree that Lolita's well-being is of paramount importance. This proposal will set forth:
Background and introduction
That all phases of transporting Lolita to a well-prepared, professionally supervised rehabilitation and retirement facility in a protected inland cove in her native waters can be accomplished safely and will provide the best outcome for her long term health and safety;
That a major national public relations outreach program describing Lolita's move to Washington waters, combining news media with publicity paid by the Lolita Retirement Plan and the Miami Seaquarium, will ensure positive recognition and publicity for the Miami Seaquarium;
Details of the step-by-step process of preparation, transportion, rehabilitation, and readaptation to Northwest marine conditions. The plan will also describe the contingencies by which any consideration may be made to allow Lolita to return to her immediate family, L pod, and her extended family, the Southern Resident orca community.
The orca known as Lolita (first called Tokitae) was captured in Penn Cove, Whidbey Island, Washington State, on August 8, 1970, one of a group of seven orcas captured at that time, among over 40 orcas captured between 1965 and 1973, for sale to marine parks. Recent information from a biologist present at the capture indicates that she was probably 2 to 4 years old at capture. She was, and remains, a member of the Southern Resident Orca community.
After capture Lolita was sent to a whale stadium at the Miami Seaquarium, where she joined a juvenile male named Hugo. Hugo had been captured at an estimated three years of age from the same orca community in February, 1968, though there was no knowledge about orca communities at that time. He died in March of 1980 of a brain aneurism after repeatedly ramming his head against the walls and windows.
Since 1980 Lolita has not come into contact with any other orca. Several Pacific white-sided dolphins and a Japanese Risso's dolphin and at least one sea lion have shared the whale stadium pool with Lolita from time to time.
It is reasonable to assume that Lolita was exposed, through shared water sources, to pathogens potentially carried by other captive dolphins and pinnipeds at MSQ or by humans or her food supply.
All the other captured members of the Southern Resident Community died in captivity by 1987. By virtue of her survival in relatively good health, Lolita is an extraordinary orca. As described by Dr. Jesse White when he chose her for the Seaquarium, Lolita is "courageous, yet very gentle." Her longevity as a performing orca is remarkable, in part probably due to the high quality diet, medical care and activity regimen provided by the Seaquarium, and her immersion in chilled, natural seawater.
Lolita continues to vocalize in the unique calls used only by her family and community, indicating that she retains her memories of her days prior to capture. These memories may also be a factor in Lolita's longevity, and bode well for the prospect that she could successfully recall, and readapt to, her native habitat with the likelihood of enhancing her life-span, and potentially reintegrate with her natal society. It is hoped that all involved parties can share in this great adventure.
Photographic and historical records show that Lolita was a member of the population described in 1975 as the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). Unlike any other mammalian species known, this orca community experiences no dispersal or recruitment, except by birth and death. Thus it is a genetically and behaviorally unique and intact extended family that has been intensively studied consistently since 1973. Six female members of the community who were present at the time of Lolita's capture in 1970 are still alive, three of which could be her mother.
The SRKW's association patterns, genealogical structure, maturation rates, birth rates, longevity and mortality rates and habitat usage patterns are photographically documented on a daily basis by the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, WA. Those data provide the foundation for studies conducted by federal and state agencies and other organizations and researchers.
In 2001 a landmark paper was published in the British Journal of Behavioural and Brain Sciences called Culture in Whales and Dolphins, by Rendell and Whitehead. The authors conclude that: "The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties."
For the past 41 years Lolita has performed reliably, entertaining countless visitors to the Miami Seaquarium with her immense power, her graceful performances and the trust and cooperation she demonstrates with her trainers. She has proven to be exceptionally robust, outliving by over two decades all of the more the 45 other orcas from her community that were captured within three years before or after her capture. Since 1987, when Lolita became the last surviving captive from her community, she has represented a unique opportunity to examine the strength and durability of the memories and communication systems of Orcinus orca. Various research projects were proposed at that time and in following years to engage Lolita in a communication experiment to test those abilities. It would be technologically feasible to facilitate two-way communication between Lolita, in the tank in Miami, and her family members along the west side of San Juan Island, to test the level and quality of communications between them.
Since 1993 a broad-based constituency has formed that is aware of Lolita's situation and is dedicated to her return to her home waters. Worldwide, a consensus has developed that the capture of wild orcas for marine parks harms the animals and typically shortens their life spans, resulting in a de facto moratorium on further captures. Despite breeding programs, the overall captive orca population has decreased from about 55 in 1989 (at the time of the last capture program) to approximately 42 today. This downward trend indicates that no replacement is likely to be found for Lolita when she dies or leaves the Miami Seaquarium.
Summary of retirement plan and procedures for retiring Lolita to her native waters
Beyond general acceptance of the merits of Lolita's retirement, Seaquarium staff are needed for pre-transport preparation and research, all stages of transport, and for Lolita's initial care in her retirement facility, in part to reduce stress and enhance Lolita's confidence and trust. Seaquarium staff will also be invited to examine the retirement facility in advance of transport to advise on any particulars of the facility or procedures. The best results will come when all principle parties effectively collaborate in the planning process.
The Lolita Retirement Project, in partnership with the Miami Seaquarium and other professional marine mammal care personnel, will make arrangements and preparations to transport Lolita to a netted seapen in a protected cove on San Juan Island. There Lolita will be medically supervised, provided with the same fish diet she is accustomed to and cared for. Initially she will be provided the same diet she is accustomed to, while gradually testing her responses to live salmon.
If deemed advisable by scientific and veterinary personnel, Lolita will gradually be allowed to swim outside the netted enclosure while accompanied by her care staff on a boat equipped with a recall signal device. Over time she should be given the opportunity to swim greater distances while rebuilding her strength and stamina.
If she appears to be unwilling or unable to venture outside her pen, she will be provided with sustenance, medical care, training regimens and human companionship indefinitely.
As a prime mover in this well-publicized retirement project, the Miami Seaquarium would gain immensely in highly positive free publicity by publicly facilitating the retirement of the whale that has been identified with the Seaquarium for over 41 years. The following proposal provides details of all phases of Lolita's retirement to her native waters. There is no significant risk to Lolita involved in any phase of this project. In fact, remaining in the undersized tank in Miami presents a far greater risk to Lolita's health than her transport and placement in a retirement baypen in her native waters.
It is important to note that transport of orcas by air is a routine practice among marine parks and has never resulted in any harm to an orca. Also important is the successful return of Keiko to Iceland, where his health improved and his energetic activity increased immediately upon his immersion in his native waters.
Lolita's Retirement Plan Proposal
A. The goal
This proposed plan includes some of the valuable scientific research opportunities associated with every phase of this project. This proposal is intended to offer a plausible process for Lolita’s retirement in her natal habitat in Washington State, and to stimulate discussions about how best to accomplish that goal. The following is a general outline of the plan and the organizational structure needed to carry it out. Many details of this plan are expected to be reconsidered and modified as principle parties work together for Lolita's best interests.
- The primary goal of the Lolita Retirement Plan is to relocate Lolita to a rehabilitation/retirement facility in an ocean water seapen in a protected cove in her native habitat in Washington State. Kanaka Bay, on the west side of San Juan Island has been selected for Lolita's pen. In 1976 two orcas were held in Kanaka Bay for three months prior to release. Throughout the transport and relocation, and as long as she remains in human care, she will continue to receive high quality food and medical care. The rehabilitation phase will be considered accomplished when Lolita demonstrates satisfactory metabolic strength and medical parameters, including a healthy diet, longer dive times and sustained power swims.
- The secondary goal is train Lolita for gradual open water exercises with progressively longer boat-follow training (based on US Navy Operation Deep Ops) to further build her strength to eventually approximate the physical condition of her family pod members. Control by training staff will continue to be exerted throughout this phase of the project.
B. Pre-transport preparations and research goals
A variety of measures will be taken to prevent public intrusion during the course of Lolita’s rehabilitation and retirement. The site is away from public roads and access can be controlled with security personnel. Kanaka Bay is recessed from view from the travelled waters along the west side of San Juan Island, and can be partitioned with bouy lines to prevent boat traffic from a 200-300 yard perimeter. A 1,000 yard aircraft ceiling will be enforced by video security. 24-hour security will be employed to prevent unauthorized approaches.
- Natal population research: As discussed by Brill and Freidl (1993) in their report to Congress concerning reintroduction of surplus Navy dolphins, an important component to any reintroduction program is a thorough understanding of the native population into which the animal is to be released. Since 1973, Lolita's natal community has been, and continues to be, comprehensively documented, and is considered the most intensively researched cetacean population worldwide. Demographic parameters such as longevity, birth rates, maturation rates, mortality rates, prey selection and availability, social systems, reproductive strategies, contaminant exposure, habitat usage, genetic profile and acoustic communication systems are well documented on an on-going basis. Little or no additional effort will be required to accomplish this goal.
- Environmental assessment of retirement site: Space requirements, water quality, perimeter security, etc. will be examined prior to transport.
- Permitting: Applications will be made for all relevant permits for use of retirement site (US Army Corps of Engineers, sate, county and town permits and approvals), and all required federal permits will be applied for and fully complied with.
- Preparation for transport: Lolita will be comprehensively examined by a team of veterinarians for overall health and any communicable pathogens (e.g., normal blood and chemistry parameters, no morbillivirus, no hepatitis B virus). Seaquarium staff will condition Lolita to position herself in a sling. Other pre-transport protocols will be followed.
- Transport: A transport crate will be found or built to ride on a flatbed semi-truck for transport to Miami-Dade International Airport. Either a commercial carrier or military aircraft will carry Lolita in her crate to Whidbey Island. Requests will be made for use of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station for use of the airstrip and boat launch, located approximately ten miles from the retirement site. Permission has previously been given by the Naval commander at Whidbey NAS for use of the airstrip and boat launch. A floating seapen will be constructed for the approximately 20-mile transport from the boat launch to the retirement facility.
- The Facility: A protected cove on the west side of San Juan Island, Kanaka Bay, will be the site of Lolita's retirement facility. This cove was used in 1976 to care for two captured orcas for 55 days prior to their release. The eyebolts are still in place for holding the seapen net. In addition to the stationary seapen, and the floating seapen for use as needed for medical procedures, the facility will include a live-aboard boat or boats for accomodations for veterinary, training and security staff, and fish storage.
C. Rehabilitation procedures
Procedures to be followed after Lolita's return to Washington State will be adapted to her behavioral and medical responses. Protocols will be adjusted by veterinary staff, training staff and scientific advisors, and coordinated by the Project Manager, depending on foreseeable and unforeseeable contingencies.
- Phase one - Transport, post-transport and transitional period:
Before, during and immediately after transport Lolita should be provided with as much continuity with her previous conditions as possible. In addition to pre-transport training and other preparations, her trainer(s), veterinarian(s), and other support staff should accompany her in flight and during all stages of the transport. They should remain with her for as long as possible after her arrival in Washington. Her current dietary regime, her medical prodecures and any medications, supplements, etc., should be continued at the discretion of her veterinarian.
The medical staff should include at least one experienced marine mammal veterinarian responsible for a written program of health care. Routine site visits should be conducted as prescribed by the veterinary staff and husbandry staff, including physical examinations and blood sampling and collection of other specimens, as directed by the veterinarian.
Lolita's progress from any given phase of these procedures to the next will be contingent on her ability to demonstrate sufficient health, vigor and behavioral adaptability to proceed to the next phase. Thus, an exact timetable for the duration of each phase cannot be determined in advance of concurrent observations of her behavior and condition. The immedate goal is to provide Lolita with a suitable retirement situation in her native waters. Lolita will be maintained in the seapen unless and until she consistently demonstrates clean health records for a period acceptable to the consulting veterinarian. At that time a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientific research permit (SRP) pplication may be submitted to reintroduce Lolita to her family.
- Phase two - Subsequent maintenance and training protocol:
After Lolita is fully acclimatized to her seapen, surroundings and staff, and is observed to exhibit normal metabolic strength, stress levels and physical parameters, boat-follow exercises should be carried out, partly based on PROJECT DEEP OPS: Deep Object Recovery with Pilot and Killer Whales. (Bowers, C.A. and R.S. Henderson, 1972). In 1970 and 1971 two juvenile male killer whales were maintained in US Navy seapens in Hawaii and were trained to follow boats up to fifty nautical miles and dive hundreds of feet deep on an almost daily basis. Similar Navy training regimens continue to be carried out using bottlenose dolphins. With the consent of veterinary and scientific staff, Lolita will begin boat-recall training, in which she will be trained to come to an acoustic signal, while remaining within the seapen. During this time, she should demonstrate the ability to forage effectively on live fish for essentially all her caloric requirements. Subsequently, boat-recall training should take place outside her seapen, in a larger area which has been temporarily netted off.
When recall-training is accomplished within the larger netted area, she should be led out of Kanaka Bay for boat-follow exercises for varying lengths of time in Haro Strait, Rosario Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to further rebuild her swimming and diving strength, stamina and skills. She should be monitored for several months during extended boat-follow exercises, with food supplementation available if needed. If her behavior and condition do not warrant inception or continuation of boat-follow exercises, they should be discontinued and rehabilitation procedures within the seapen will be resumed.
Use of a radiotag for monitoring in case of her refusal to return to the boat or the seapen should be considered. It is anticipated that a tag would provide two to four months of telemetry data before it is shed, and that the tag would leave no permanent mark on Lolita. No additional identifying factor is required because photoidentification and visual recognition will suffice for monitoring purposes.
If efforts to rehabilitate Lolita to a level of health and stamina that is normal for the species are not successful after six months to a year of extended boat-follow exercises, long-term care and facilities should be arranged for Lolita's permanent retirement (see below).
- Phase three - Potential reintroduction procedures:
After a succession of extended boat-follow exercises for a period of several months, soft-release will occur for a period of two months after she demonstrates normal health and stamina. Soft-release is defined as providing a permanent opening in the perimeter fence of the seapen, while maintaining the infrastructure at the facility to assist her should she return to the seapen and solicit companionship or food. Her medical behaviors will be maintained until two weeks prior to soft-release.
If soft-release proves successful as determined by her behavior and condition, post-release monitoring, in which Lolita will be located by radio tag or a network of trained shore observers operating from boats, and by aerial surveys, will be conducted for a minimum of twelve months after initial release (approximately two months soft-release followed by ten months monitoring).
If her condition and behavior continue to indicate successful readaptation at the end of this period, reintroduction will be considered complete and a final report will be submitted to NMFS. Systematic and opportunistic monitoring will continue indefinitely through an established observer network consisting of American and Canadian marine mammal researchers, commercial whale-watch operators, the Soundwatch and Straitwatch boater education programs, and hundreds of boat and shore-based observers. Observations should be received and coordinated by the Orca Network Sightings Network to be transmitted to appropriate personnel and authorities.
D. Potential retirement procedures
If, during or after the soft-release or monitoring phases, she does not return to the seapen and does not appear to be successfully readapting to the wild (e.g., if she is exhibiting weight loss, erratic or aberrant behavior such as begging for food or attention, or other nuisance behaviors), a recapture plan should be initiated using a professional orca capture team if necessary to return her to the seapen for additional rehabilitation. If a second effort at reintroduction proves unsuccessful, she should be maintained indefinitely at a permanent bay pen facility. An endowment fund should be created to provide financial support expenses for her long-term care and nutritional needs.
E. Project management
For further background and information, see: A Review of the Releasability of Long-Term Captive Orcas Garrett, H. (1998).
- Steering commitee
An executive steering committee should be created and tasked with overall direction of the project. The steering committee should include members of the Lolita Retirement campaign, the Project Manager, a representative of the Seaquarium, NOAA FIsheries officials, and respected members of the marine mammal scientific community.
- Project manager
A salaried project manager should enact on-site management and day-to-day operations. The Project Manager should have knowledge of the Southern Resident orca community, the natural history of Orcinus orca and knowledge of cetacean care and maintenance, financial and personnel management experience, and fund-raising abilities.
- Scientific committee
The scientific committee, to be chosen by the Project Manager, should advise the Project Manager on all aspects of procedures involving diet, care, training, transport, rehabilitation and reintroduction.
- Fund-raising , fiduciary and legal committee
Should include members of the Lolita Retirement campaign, an impartial accountant and legal representatives of the Miami Seaquarium and the Lolita Retirement campaign. This committee should oversee fund-raising and expenditures (Proposed budgetary information is available for interested parties).