In today’s episode of This Day in Miami History, we acknowledge an icon of Miami-Dade County, Lolita the Orca. We also look at the history of the Miami Seaquarium, her home for more than a century, and the controversy about her time in South Florida.

The quest to free Lolita the orca from five decades in captivity – The Globe and Mail

Sk’aliCh’elh tenaut’s name, Orca Network – YouTube

Lolita the Orca is Dead | Dolphin Project

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[00;00;00;15 – 00;00;24;20] Matthew Bunch: What’s it like to be an icon and never even know it? What’s it like to be the center of controversy and never have the opportunity to say a word about what other people are saying about you? What’s it like to live more than 50 years in captivity? I would imagine that most of us, myself included, don’t know the answers to those questions.

[00;00;24;22 – 00;00;52;29] Matthew Bunch: There was a living being that did. That was Toki, better known as Lolita, the Orca, the killer whale that lived at the Miami Seaquarium from 1970 until this weekend. She’s gone now. She’s left the state, to Georgia. And I’m here in the parking lot of the Miami Seaquarium. The normal traffic on the Rickenbacker Causeway is zooming by. But the parking lot is quiet.

[00;00;53;02 – 00;01;23;08] Matthew Bunch: There are a few cars, but no school busses, no children. The gates are closed because Toki is gone. And by the time you hear this, tomorrow or any day thereafter, the park will be open again. Open to guests and local schoolchildren and tourists who want to come in and see the sea life that the Seaquarium hosts. But it’s important to take a moment and reflect on arguably one of the most famous residents of Miami-Dade County over the last half century.

[00;01;23;10 – 00;01;40;03] Matthew Bunch: And that’s what we’re going to focus on today, This Day in Miami History: August 22, 2023. The day that the Miami Seaquarium reopens for the first time without Lolita in almost 53 years.

[00;01;40;05 – 00;01;58;28] King Elizabeth: ♪ “Miami Sunrise” by King Elizabeth ♪

[00;01;59;00 – 00;02;26;04] Matthew Bunch: The story of Lolita goes back before she arrived in Miami. In fact, it goes back before there was a Lolita at all. Let’s go back to 1955, the founding of the Miami Seaquarium. When it opened, it was a stand-out attraction for South Florida. Considering the environment, it was a perfect place to put an oceanarium, and in fact, it was at the time the world’s largest oceanarium.

[00;02;26;07 – 00;02;36;28] Matthew Bunch: It needed an attraction. It needed something to bring in not only a local audience, but a national and global audience. In 1963, the Seaquarium found its answer.

[00;02;36;28 – 00;02;53;20] The Ron Hicklin Singers: ♪ They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning ♪

[00;02;53;23 – 00;03;22;04] Matthew Bunch: The answer was Flipper. The show, which was co-produced by the Miami-based Ivan Tors Films Inc., aired for three seasons on NBC. It was a relative ratings success. It brought attention to the Miami Seaquarium, which was a partner in the production of the show. But the series ended in 1967, and so the Seaquarium needed something new, needed something to grab the attention of the public again.

[00;03;22;06 – 00;03;33;07] Matthew Bunch: And in 1968, they would find their answer. And that answer was a killer whale, but not Lolita.

[00;03;33;09 – 00;03;48;13] Narrator, “Killer is a Softie”: May we formally introduce Orcinus orca? But most of his friends call him just plain Hugo. By nature, he’s a killer. But you’d hardly know it. Certainly not the way he treats Rick O’Feldman or Mike Connor, his trainers.

[00;03;48;16 – 00;04;02;20] Matthew Bunch: But getting Hugo to the Miami Seaquarium was no easy feat. The orcas were based in the Pacific Northwest, and so preparing and transporting a killer whale had to be carefully done.

[00;04;02;22 – 00;04;23;24] Ralph Renick: With Hugo isolated in the holding pen, the real job begins: Moving him safely the 4,000 miles from Seattle to Miami. First, the medication to relax him so he will not injure himself. Ever try to get a whale to take his medicine? Hugo could take doctor and medicine in one gulp.

[00;04;23;26 – 00;04;43;05] Ralph Renick: Loaded in a custom-made sling, Hugo is put aboard a chartered, specially outfitted plane for the long trip to Miami. He’s wrapped in cloth in order to retain moisture, constantly coated with cold seawater to protect his skin. Along the way, he’s watched continually by a team of specialists alert for any signs of trouble.

[00;04;43;08 – 00;05;10;02] Matthew Bunch: You might recognize that voice. It’s of legendary South Florida news anchor, Ralph Renick. Renick was, of course, the face of WTVJ. WTVJ was owned by Wometco, which also owned the Miami Seaquarium. Hugo was in his tank and Hugo was a definite attraction for Miami Seaquarium. But Hugo was lonely. And loneliness can precede a decrease of appetite in animals, in captivity.

[00;05;10;04 – 00;05;19;21] Matthew Bunch: And a decrease in appetite can precede death. And so the Miami Seaquarium decided to search for a partner.

[00;05;19;23 – 00;05;44;11] Narrator, “Killer Whale Show”: The Miami Seaquarium welcomes you all to the home of our world-famous killer whales, Hugo and Lolita. Hugo came to the Miami Seaquarium in 1968, and Lolita joined us at the Miami Seaquarium in 1970. And ever since, they’ve been thrilling crowds with their action-packed shows.

[00;05;44;13 – 00;06;17;17] Matthew Bunch: Both Hugo and Lolita were captured in the Pacific Northwest. Hugo was caught in Vaughn Bay near Puget Sound, Washington, and Lolita was part of a capture that came to be infamously known as the Penn Cove captures of 1970. Multiple whales died during that year in Penn Cove. Lolita was not one of them. For the next decade, Lolita and Hugo were two stars of the Miami Seaquarium, featuring in shows that took place in what was known as the Whale Bowl.

[00;06;17;19 – 00;06;47;07] Matthew Bunch: And also they became a focus for breeding. The Seaquarium wanted more whales. Lolita was younger than Hugo. She was about four years old when she arrived in Miami, and it could take until 12 years before female whales reach sexual maturity. Lolita and Hugo would never have offspring. Hugo displayed symptoms of a psychosis that occasionally could be seen in captured orcas.

[00;06;47;09 – 00;07;05;23] Matthew Bunch: And one symptom of this psychosis for Hugo was his habit of ramming his head against the side of his tank. This led to injuries and eventually a brain aneurysm. On March 4, 1980, after 12 years at the Miami Seaquarium, Hugo was gone.

[00;07;05;25 – 00;07;25;22] Ori Alter, WPLG: Visitors who did not specifically ask were not being told why the whale show was canceled for the day. Probably not the kind of thing a fun-seeking tourist wants to be burdened with anyway. But Hugo’s death was the burden of his trainers and Seaquarium general manager Warren Zeiler, visibly saddened by the 14-year-old whale’s death.

[00;07;25;24 – 00;07;43;27] Warren Zeiler: I think she’ll sense the lack of his presence, and I can’t say that she is grieving or use any of those adjectives because that is anthropomorphic. And we really shouldn’t apply human characteristics to animals. But having been with them so long, I find it difficult not to do just that.

[00;07;43;29 – 00;07;46;14] Ori Alter, WPLG: So, Lolita will go on with the show, so to speak.

[00;07;46;15 – 00;07;50;22] Warren Zeiler: Absolutely. First thing in the morning, they’ll start right up again.

[00;07;50;25 – 00;08;17;24] Matthew Bunch: For the next 43 years and five months, Lolita would swim at the Seaquarium. Never seeing another orca. For many of these years, there have been efforts to free Lolita, to remove her from the Seaquarium and return her to her native homelands in the Pacific Northwest. Those efforts ultimately failed, but they drew a tremendous amount of attention and scrutiny on the Miami Seaquarium.

[00;08;17;26 – 00;08;47;28] Matthew Bunch: What had originally been a selling point and attraction for the Seaquarium became a burden. Particularly in the last decade, a variety of organizations, from general animal welfare groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to organizations specifically focused on orcas, applied social pressure and political pressure, brought attention to the failings of the Seaquarium as it related to Lolita, and ultimately impacted the Seaquarium’s bottom line.

[00;08;48;01 – 00;09;19;27] Matthew Bunch: By 2017, revenues from the Seaquarium turned negative. One group in particular really adopted Lolita as a cause. That group was the Lummi Nation, a native tribe based in Washington that saw Lolita as a stolen member of their nation. They wanted her returned home and they provided a new name for her, a name that was more appropriate than the title Lolita.

[00;09;19;29 – 00;09;26;09] Matthew Bunch: The voice you’ll hear is of Doug James of the Lummi Nation, speaking to the Orca Network.

[00;09;26;12 – 00;09;59;16] Doug James: You know, when we started working to bring, at that time, Lolita home, our Chief calls us in, you know, and he says that we have to put another name on her, a name that comes from her home waters here. The village of Sk’ali was located over in Penn Cove. And so he took the name of that village and commemorated the area where she was taken from.

[00;09;59;19 – 00;10;18;29] Doug James: He finished off the name and it goes. Sk’aliCh’ehl-tenaut. Sk’aliCh’ehl-tenaut. He asked us that if we could put that name on her. And we did that last year down in Miami in front of the Seaquarium down there.

[00;10;19;01 – 00;10;48;02] Matthew Bunch: The pressure was building, but ultimately, potentially the most important thing that happened for Lolita in her later years was COVID. The Seaquarium was closed for a significant period of time, and by 2021 there was an awareness that something was wrong. A federal report indicated that Lolita was suffering. She lacked sufficient shade in the whale bowl.

[00;10;48;04 – 00;11;14;29] Matthew Bunch: The Seaquarium on occasion restricted her food intake. She was pushed to do tricks that may have caused her pain after a jaw injury. In 2022, ownership of the Seaquarium transferred from Palace Entertainment to the Dolphin Company. One of the first acts of the new operator was to announce that Lolita would undergo an outside inspection and, within a year, a shocking announcement.

[00;11;15;01 – 00;11;35;21] Tom Llamas, NBC: More than 50 years after she was taken from the waters of Seattle, the oldest killer whale in captivity could be heading home. The Miami Seaquarium announced plans yesterday to return the orca named Lolita to the wild. She’s thought to be about 57 years old. Animal rights groups have fought for years to let Lolita spend her final days in the Pacific Northwest.

[00;11;35;28 – 00;11;52;10] Tom Llamas, NBC: If you’re asking, is Lolita ready for this, could you survive? The plan is to build an ocean sanctuary where the orca will be supervised by trainers until she learns how to dive and catch fish again on her own. And growing up in Miami, we used to see Lolita every year at the Miami Seaquarium, so this is incredible.

[00;11;52;14 – 00;12;06;08] Matthew Bunch: If that news wasn’t shocking on its own, perhaps most shocking is the person at the center of this plan, the person that would be bankrolling it. That man is the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Irsay.

[00;12;06;11 – 00;12;26;20] Jim Irsay: You know, I knew getting into this, you know, you know, it was going to be, you know, big number. I mean, it’s going to be not seven figures, eight figures, and it’s going to be, you know, getting into, you know, literally getting her ready to go, getting the 747 or C-17 ready to go, getting everyone in that transport ready to go.

[00;12;26;22 – 00;12;49;17] Jim Irsay: I know Lolita wants to get to free waters. I don’t care what anyone says. She wants, she’s lived this long to have this opportunity and my only mission is, I’m a 3-year-old boy that sees a whale that he loves, that wants to help this whale get free.

[00;12;49;20 – 00;13;32;28] Matthew Bunch: That dream died with Lolita on August 18, 2023. We’re left with questions and heartache. And Miami-Dade County’s left without an icon. But I think it’s useful to consider Lolita or Toki or Tokitae, or perhaps most appropriately, her Lummi name, Sk’aliCh’ehl-tenaut. But I do want to circle back to that name she’s known best as: Lolita, a name that was given to her in 1970 by the Seaquarium, reflecting the fact — pretty inappropriately — that she was significantly younger than her bowl mate, Hugo.

[00;13;33;00 – 00;13;59;10] Matthew Bunch: But I actually think the allusion to the Nabokov character is useful in considering the life and death of Lolita. A figure in a dominant position wants to take ownership and control over a being. They can’t do anything about it. And in doing so, in pursuing that control, they wind up destroying the thing they care about and themselves.

[00;13;59;12 – 00;14;50;01] Matthew Bunch: Obviously, considering the nature of this story, I rushed a little bit in putting things together. I do hope you enjoyed the story, though. It was interesting to take time and look back over Lolita’s life here in Miami-Dade County. As always, the Wolfson Archives incredibly useful in developing out this story. Additionally, some information that was really useful came from the Orca Network and the Dolphin Project. Also an article by Nancy MacDonald in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper from April 2023 was really useful in understanding both the past of Lolita, the efforts of individuals to return her to the wild and what the future was supposed to be, and I’ll include a link to that in the show description. I do encourage you to check it out

[00;14;50;04 – 00;15;16;01] Matthew Bunch: If you like the show, as always, I ask you to give us a five-star review on your preferred podcast provider. If you’re just checking us out for the first time, please do follow us on your preferred podcast provider and on your preferred social media platform: Instagram, X (the former Twitter), Facebook, developing a presence on BlueSky. All those places you can find @thisdaymiamipod.

[00;15;16;03 – 00;15;21;12] Matthew Bunch: And so until next time, as always, thank you for listening. And I’ve been Matthew Bunch.

[00;15;21;15 – 00;15;37;18] King Elizabeth: ♪ “Miami Sunrise” by King Elizabeth ♪

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