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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seattle Orcas

Air Date: Week of

The Governor of Washington State has made an unusual plea: for the return of the orca whale Lolita back to Washington's Puget Sound from her 25 years of captivity in Miami's Seaquarium. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on efforts to gain Lolita's return, while others advocate for the orca to remain in her familiar Seaquarium home.


CURWOOD: Twenty-five years ago perhaps half of the killer whales at Washington State's Puget Sound were captured for research and display in marine parks around the world. Of all the orcas taken from the Sound, only one still survives: Lolita, now 30 years old. Lolita lives today at an aquarium in Miami, and some researchers would like to try setting her free. They say returning her to her home waters would yield valuable information about the health of Puget Sound and the behavior of wild orcas. But others say such a move would put her life in serious danger. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt has our story.

(Ambient voices in a gathering. Lowry: "I am here to state my support for efforts to bring Lolita back after 25 years of work in captivity. To bring her back to retire as a citizen of the State of Washington...")

SCHMIDT: Earlier this year Washington Governor Mike Lowry made this unexpected public plea for the return of the killer whale Lolita to the waters of Puget Sound, where she was captured back in 1970. It was a time when marine parks around the world were clamoring for the striking black and white animals. Puget Sound was the main site for the round-up of wild orcas, an effort the public wholeheartedly supported. Just a few years before, crowds had flocked to Seattle to marvel at one of the first killer whales ever held in captivity. Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro remembers the time well.

MUNRO: There's no question that her captors were heroes, and I would guess that 100% of public opinion was on the side of the capture. And that was really when captivity began to be expanded.

SCHMIDT: From the mid-1960s through the early 70s, it's estimated that nearly 60 orcas, almost half the entire population of whales in Washington and southern British Columbia, were caught and sold to marine parks. At the time there were no laws restricting their capture. But that changed quickly, after 3 dead baby orcas washed ashore in Puget Sound, with rocks and anchors stuffed into their bellies. It was later revealed the babies had drowned during a round-up and the captors had tried to cover it up. Wally Funk is the former publisher of a local newspaper. He says people were devastated by the discovery.

FUNK: It's almost as if you would find a baby had -- there was something that had been taken from people that they lost their innocence.

SCHMIDT: Before long, state and Federal laws were passed restricting the capture of killer whales.

(Outboard motor)

SCHMIDT: Today, Puget Sound is a center for the sturdy of wild orcas. On this windy summer morning, 4 researchers are tracking a half-dozen killer whales off Washington's San Juan Islands. At one point their boat moves alongside the animals as they surface, breathing loudly.

(Sound of whales breathing. People go, "Oh!")

SCHMIDT: Later a microphone is lowered into the water to make a tape of the orcas; vocalizations: the combination of clicking to locate prey, and shrill whistles by which they communicate with each other.

(Whistles from the orcas)

SCHMIDT: This work is part of an ongoing study at the Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands. Biologist Ken Balcomb founded the center 10 years ago, and he's now spearheading the effort to reunite Lolita with her pod.

BALCOMB: I'm sure these whales don't expect Lolita to come back. What's their response?

SCHMIDT: Balcomb says such an unprecedented reunion could yield valuable new information about how whales communicate. He also says Lolita would give researchers the chance to do studies they can't do with wild whales. For instance, because she has a detailed medical record, Balcomb says she could reveal to scientists how the waters of Puget Sound affect her and her species.

BALCOMB: We know her blood chemistry, and we can then check at intervals while she's back out here in her natural setting, whether she's picking up any heavy metals, any residues that we may have in our waters in Puget Sound. The risky part, people would say, is will she go back to her family? And I believe she will.

SCHMIDT: It's this goal of reuniting Lolita with her family that's perhaps the driving force behind efforts to free her. For many involved it seems to be a way, at least symbolically, of righting an historic wrong: the round-ups of 25 years ago. Still, it remains questionable whether Lolita's return will ever happen.

(Music plays around an ambient, noisy crowd)

SCHMIDT: Here at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita is hard at work performing one of two daily shows to the steady beat of rock music. For 20 minutes she performs magic in the water, gracefully diving and leaping and flapping her fins for an enthusiastic audience. Lolita is the marine park's star attraction, and the Seaquarium says it has no intention of letting her go.

RUBIN: Lolita is not for sale. Period. She's not for sale.

SCHMIDT: Seaquarium spokesman Bruce Rubin says the park is mainly concerned about Lolita's well-being. There is no way, he says, they're going to risk her life for what he calls a wacky publicity stunt.

RUBIN: It's important to keep in mind that Lolita has been at the Seaquarium for 25 years. She's been used to being hand-fed. She's used to being around people. She gets, of course, wonderful medical care. The point of it is, this animal hasn't been in the wild for 25 years.

SCHMIDT: Other marine parks have joined the Seaquarium in opposing the release of captive killer whales, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which must approve the release of captive marine mammals, says there are serious risks associated with reintroductions back into wild populations. Anne Terbush is the head of permitting for the Fisheries Service.

TERBUSH: There are concerns about the possible spread of disease, the spread of inappropriate behaviors. Oftentimes, captive animals will follow people, look for food, show begging behaviors, that kind of thing.

MAN: She's heading toward us.

SCHMIDT: Back in the San Juan Islands, staff at the Center for Whale Research are gathered outside, watching as a small group of orcas glide past, heading south on their evening forage. Neither of these researchers, nor anyone else, can say for sure what's right for Lolita. Supporters of her release acknowledge her reintroduction would be an experiment. But they reiterate it's an experiment with the possibility of high payoffs, both for the scientific world and for Lolita. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.



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