On September 24, 1970 a “pretty” package was delivered to the Miami Seaquarium, an aquatic amusement park near downtown Miami. Her name was Tokitae.
Tokitae was a four-year-old Southern Resident Killer Whale (also known as an orca) taken from her home and her family off the coast of Seattle, Washington in a roundup led by Ted Griffin and Don Goldsbury. Ted Griffin was the first man to ever swim with and perform with a wild orca. He owned the Seattle Public Aquarium (no longer in existence) and he was the first person to catch a wild orca for his shows. Later he formed a business of capturing and selling orcas for $20,000-$25,000.
On the day they captured Tokitae, Griffin and Goldsbury’s team was equipped with explosives to disorient the adult members of the pod, speedboats, and an airplane. Their mission was to take the babies from the adults so they could be sold to amusement parks around the country.
The adult orcas fought in protection of their babies and as a result one adult and four babies were killed. Those that were killed were slit open, filled with rocks, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean to hide evidence of their deaths. All the living babies were taken.
Between the years of 1965 and 1975 thirteen orcas were killed during similar roundups and sixty-five babies were taken and sold to marine parks. As a result, their species lost an entire generation of future mating pairs and is now listed as critically endangered due to these roundups. Today only one of the sixty-five baby orcas that were sent to amusement parks is still alive: Tokitae.
Tokitae is a Chinook word from the native Chinook tribe that also live on the Pacific coastal waters native to the orcas, it means “pretty”.
When Tokitae arrived at the Miami Seaquarium they quickly changed her name to something that would please audiences.
They named her Lolita after the namesake character in Vladimir Nobakov’s controversial novel “Lolita”.
The plan was to have her perform tricks in an hour long show upwards of 3-4 times a day – a schedule she has been keeping every day during the Seaquarium’s operating hours for the past 46 years straight.
Even though orcas are highly social and dependent upon the nurturing company of their pod, Lolita has been living alone for 46 years in the smallest orca tank in the world in a sweltering sunny climate that is completely opposite her native Pacific Northwest habitat.
If you’ve read the novel “Lolita”, the name is eerily fitting. In the novel, Lolita, a twelve-year-old girl, is the source of fantasy and exploitation by the deluded protagonist Humbert Humbert who separates Lolita from her mother, abuses her sexually and ultimately leads to both of their deaths. In the novel her name is actually Dolores, nicknamed “Dolly” by her mother and known only to Humbert, her exploiter, as “Lolita.”
Resident killer whales from the Pacific Northwest stay with their mothers their entire lives. Female orcas are the matriarchs of the pod and live to be twice as old as the males. They can live to be 100 or even older. Lolita’s mother, known by scientists as “L25”, is still alive today at approximately ninety years old, and is said to be photographed regularly by scientists and conservation organizations.
Today the Seaquarium is celebrating 46 years of Lolita’s life within their concrete walls. I grew up in Miami and visited the Seaquarium many times when I was a child. Our school would lead field trips there. My parents would send me there with friends. It was something to do on a sunny afternoon.
Now I live minutes from the park and feel a pang of guilt and sadness when I drive by it each day. To the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita’s birthday is the day she arrived 46 years ago on September 24th. In an uncanny twist Lolita and I share the same birthday. So last year on her 45th birthday I went to see her.
The park charged me $50 admission on a Thursday afternoon. Surprisingly, the park was packed. Lolita’s second show of the day was about to begin, it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.
I took my seat in the open auditorium among kids and a surprising number of adults without children in tow. There Lolita was in her solitary tank slowly swimming in circles around its rim. It was true, the tank was the smallest I had ever seen. Smaller even than the seal tank at the Central Park Zoo. The water was murky and wreaked of chlorine.
Within a few minutes the loud speakers perked up and two female trainers came skipping out with hands waving in the air onto the performers platform.
The show was longer than I imagined and still incorporated several parlor tricks that each awarded Lolita with a piece of chum.
The crowd was cheering, but several had their heads buried into their phones.
The performers sprinkled facts about orcas into their performance and made sure to stress how healthy she is. I couldn’t argue that Lolita is the oldest living orca in captivity – far exceeding the life expectancy of any other orca in captivity, which often didn’t amount to more than a year for her 65 family members – including the world famous Willy and Shamu.
What I also couldn’t deny was the sadness I felt or how pathetic she looked performing to a listless crowd on a Thursday afternoon. I couldn’t deny that this hot sunny climate with no shade to protect her skin was not her home. That she is not with her family or with another of her kind. She has been stripped of all her natural rights. Her right is to swim for hundreds of miles a day, to hunt for her food, to play with and communicate with her family in the melodic language only her L-pod knows, to live her long life with her mother, to herself become part of the matriarch chain, to bear her own children, to serve as a midwife to her sisters, her cousins, and even her own daughter. In truth, she is a slave. There’s no other way to put it.
And Lolita is not alone. There are thousands of animals across our country who were taken from the wild and placed on exhibit. Several of those, like her also have to perform every day. The practice is worldwide. It’s an epidemic of lack of awareness. We don’t recognize it as slavery. We see it as education, entertainment and even conservation.
Jacques Cousteau says it better than anyone, “There’s about as much educational benefit studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary.”
I chose to stand behind this story because Lolita is my neighbor. In many ways she’s my older sister. We grew up together and she arrived in Miami on the day of my birthday. She’s a survivor and a symbol for exploitation of all who do not have a voice, even those like 12-year-old Lolita.
This photo was taken by Miami-based photographer David Vance. The imagery is inspired by photographer team Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vindooh. If you look closely at the faces you will see that each mouth is an orca. The provocative nature of the photo is a reference to the novel “Lolita” and the parallel between Tokitae’s story and Lolita’s story and extends to those currently living in exploitation across the world.
What’s possible for Lolita? How can we help?
The Orca Network have a plan to bring Lolita (Tokitae) back to her native habitat. To learn about it follow these links.
For more info on Lolita’s L-pod :
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