Killer whale Lolita has been wowing seaquarium crowds for over 40 years, but now she's at the centre of a campaign to free the creatures from captivity.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 21:30

The majestic orca killer whale Lolita has been wowing crowds at Miami Seaquarium in the United States for over 40 years.

But while tourists lap up her playful show, animal rights protesters say she's deeply distressed and needs to be returned to the wild.

Nick Lazaredes follows the growing campaign focused around Lolita to see orcas freed from captivity.

The issue is also the subject of the documentary film, Blackfish, to be released in Australia this month, looking at the killing of a trainer by an angry orca at Seaworld in Orlando.

But while campaigners are already making plans for Lolita to be reunited with her family off the US Pacific coast, is there any hope of seaquariums setting their most lucrative attractions free?

Watch Nick's story above, and in an extra video for the Dateline website below, he looks at the campaign to free an orca and some beluga whales at a Canadian aquarium.

Canadian Protest

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It wasn't long ago that a visit to the circus featured dancing elephants and lions jumping through hoops, now these acts are seen as demeaning and often cruel but it seems that message hasn't gone through to aquarium owners, they still produce spectacular shows with Dolphins and Orcas otherwise known as killer whales, Nick Lazaredes reports on the campaign to liberate one of these creatures.

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

Every week thousands are drawn to Miami's ageing Seaquarium for a spectacular encounter with a majestic creature of the deep - and today, Lolita the Orca is putting on another awe inspiring show.

This is one of the few places in the world where you can see the interactions between an Orca and its human trainer. Remarkably, Lolita is being repeating this performance up to three times a day for the past 43 years. The crowds might adore her, but Lolita's confinement is highly controversial.

ACTIVISTS: What do you say - Free Lolita, free her today.

Outside the Seaquarium animal rights activists have stepped up their efforts in their decade long campaign to set Lolita free.

PROTESTER: This animal at the Seaquarium was kidnapped and that's the only way to describe it. This animal was kidnapped, taken against her will under a struggle of life and death ;this animal Lolita has been living in this little chlorinated cement prison for more than 40 years.


SAMANTHA WHITCRAFT: That's a trained behaviour that looks spectacular to the audience and it tells you nothing about what Orcas are in the wild..

Samantha Whitcraft doesn't go inside the Seaquarium because as one of the leaders of the protest movement she's not welcome there, but she is horrified that Orcas so used to a life in the wild are being so ruthlessly exploited in captivity.

SAMANTHA WHITCRAFT: What you see in this footage, that entire enclosure is her entire tank. It is shallower than she is long. So she cannot dive in this tank and what Orcas do in the wild is they dive very deep and they fish very deep and they swim very deep, and she can't do that because the tank is shallower than she is long. It's a travesty.

It was August 1970 when Lolita and her family pod of more than a hundred killer whales were moving through the waters of the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington State. As the pod move through an inset known as Penn Cove, a team of Orca hunters sprang upon them.

HOWARD GARRETT: It was horrendous. It was a terror operation - they threw bombs into the water. They herded them with every speedboat and aircraft they possibly could and got them into a dead end cul-de-sac where they could not escape.

Howard Garrett lives near Penn Cove and has been campaigning for Lolita's release for almost three decades. He says locals regard the capture as the most traumatic event here in living memory.

HOWARD GARRETT: First they drew the seine nets, the fishing nets all the way across so there was no escape, then they built the corrals inside and herded the mothers with the young ones into the inside corral and then they separated the mum from the babies -pushed the mamas out. They were agitated, they were traumatised, they were making noise. People were hearing the calls of the whales all around this entire neighbourhood.

John Crowe was just 18 when he was hired to help with the capture. More than 40 years later, it remains the worst experience of his life.

JOHN CROWE: They're all lined up, like, 30 whales, 25, 30 feet maybe behind us and in 10 feet of water probably all talking to Lolita, and they're just looking straight at us thinking what's going on, you know. I lost it and I just started bawling and my kids have never seen me cry. I got the job done, but it was more than I could handle.

In the frenzy that followed, four young Orcas died after charging the nets. But their deaths were kept a secret.

JOHN CROWE: Peter and Brian filled their bellies with rocks and tied anchors around their tails and sank them. Three months later, these carcasses floated up on to the beach with all these wealthy people around, and the cat was out of the bag.

It was the testimony of John Crowe and others to a Washington state inquiry that led to the introduction of America's Marine Mammals Protection Act and the outlawing of Orca captures in US waters - all too late for Lolita.

They're called killer whales but in fact they're not whales at all, they're actually dolphins - the largest member of the dolphin family. Orcas are extremely intelligent with highly evolved communication skills and a behavioural culture which has no parallel apart from humans. But it's their sophisticated social bonding that is their most remarkable characteristic along with the complex matriarchal societies to which they belong, roaming the oceans with closely knit family pods.

RIC O'BARRY: The Orca is the most social animal on planet earth. When they get together, they get together for life. We get together for birthdays and Christmas and stuff, they get together for life. And they live in a world of sound. So when we capture them like Lolita, we take away from them the two most important aspects of their life - the world of sound and their family.

As the Miami Seaquarium head trainer in the 1960s, Ric O' Barry achieved fame by coaching the dolphins that were used in the TV series flipper but it was his first-hand experience with a captive Orca that left him deeply troubled about the mental impact of confinement.

RIC O'BARRY: I trained the first killer whale in captivity in the eastern United States. His name was Hugo, at the Miami Seaquarium - he was captured at a very young age, very violent capture. He never adjusted to captivity. Hugo was extremely bored. He would come across the tank and crash his head into the side of the tank and the whole tank would shake, concrete and steel and glass. And eventually he died of a brain aneurysm from banging his head against the tank. And they got another one, Lolita.

What you don't see is the real show which goes on between shows. You would see Lolita's head up against the tank of just - it's captive dolphins oppression syndrome. It's a catatonic state they go into because you're dealing with a large brain that's in this bathtub basically. They become psychotic I believe. I believe, Lolita is psychotic, but the audience doesn't know that, they're dealing with an optical illusion.

SEAWORLD COMMERCIAL: Hi everybody. We're the Johnsons from Detroit, Michigan. We sure had a great time when we visited SeaWorld, it's one of our favourite places. When the whales get close to the glass and start kicking up the water, whammo, you're a goner.

SAMANTHA WHITCRAFT: I fail to see how a trainer popping up out of the water on the back of an Orca tells you anything educational or anything in terms of conservation about these animals. It's a circus trick. It's like being in the lady in the feathers riding the elephant in the circus.


WOMAN: Orange County Sheriff's Office

MAN: We need SO to respond for a dead person at SeaWorld, a whale has eaten one of the trainers

WOMAN: A whale ate one of the trainers?

MAN: That's correct.

Blackfish, the title of a new documentary, which is set to lift debate about Orcas in captivity to a new level. It tells the story of the death of Dawn Brancheau, an Orca trainer at Sea World in Orlando Florida.

DAWN BRANCHEAU: Coming out here every day and having the audience just love what we're doing with the animals, how to make the animals as beautiful as they are, and have people walk away and loving this animal. They're touched and they're moved and I feel like I made a difference for them.


The documentary includes interviews with several experienced Sea World trainers and probes the background of an Orca named Tilikum - the star attraction of Sea World which fatally attacked Dawn.

BLACKFISH DOCUMENTARY: When you watch the whole video you can see that Tilikum is actually really with Dawn in the beginning of the video.

Tillikums's performance begins correctly as he does what's called a pec wave - swimming around the edge of the pool with one of his flippers raised. Dawn blows a whistle to let him know that he's done well and it's time for a reward. But it seems that Tillikum misses the cue and does another lap. Dawn punishes him by delaying the fish reward and Tillikum can tell that her bucket is nearly empty.

As Dawn enters pool Tillikum follows and then drags her under. Out of respect for her family the documentary does not show the horrifying death that follows.

BLACKFISH DOCUMENTARY - TRAINER: It may have started as play or frustration and clearly escalated to be a very violent behaviour that I think it's anything but play. In the end, you know, he basically just completely mutilated that poor girl.

GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE, PRODUCER: I heard about the death of Dawn Brancheau and thought I would be doing a documentary on essentially this one sort of tragic event, and then slowly peeling back the onion and realising that there was so - so many things and truths that shocked me.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite is the producer of Blackfish. Her film traces Tillikum's life in captivity and suggests that his confinement has made him psychotic.

GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE: I mean it's just one of those sad things we'll never really know why Tilikum made the decision he did, and so in a way at the end I kind of wanted to understand him, and understand why he did what he did, and I think - I think we understand that his life in captivity kind of led him to make the decisions that he did.

In theory Orcas in captivity are protected by regulations outlawing animal cruelty. It's the job of the association of zoos and aquariums, the AZA to monitor animal welfare.

GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE: What we learned recently is that the AZA is, you know, comprised of different aquariums and zoos and if a zoo is not doing it right, everybody in the AZA gets to, sort of, vote and just sort of say, "This zoo is not doing right by their bears or their elephants." When it comes to killer whales, there's one expert in the room - Sea word. So, Sea World is essentially for decades been running unchecked, been governing themselves and I think that's why we have - we have the problem that we do today.

Following an inquiry into Brancheau's death, Sea World has been banned from allowing its trainers to enter the Orca tanks to perform. But that legal ruling does not apply to the Miami Seaquarium and Lolita.

GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE: I think actually recognise each-others vocalisations and how amazing would it be to after all these decades to put Lolita back with her original pod.

If Lolita gets her chance of freedom and a family reunion with her pod, it will take place here in the waters surrounding San Juan Island in the pacific north west. Famous for its numerous pods of resident Orcas.

KEN BALCOMB, MARINE BIOLOGIST: This is our nautical chart, we have just left Snug Harbor, we are heading out to the Harrow strait and the whales are now south of us here about seven miles.

No-one in the world knows more about Lolita's family than marine biology Ken Balcomb. We're on our way to track down a pod of Orcas that was sighted earlier in the day. Family of killer whales Ken has named J Pod.

KEN BALCOMB: There you go - this may happen again. I'm just shooting fin profiles just to see who is in the group. It's kind of how we do social organisation. These pods that swim together stay together.

The encounter with J Pod has special significance. These whales are amongst Lolita's closest relatives.

KEN BALCOMB: This pod of whales going by here, they are very close relatives - this is J Pod, Lolita's from L pod, but they're all cousins.

J Pod is the largest of the resident killer whale pods in the Puget Sounds which continues to be led by its elderly matriarch an Orca known as J 2.

KEN BALCOMB: J2 is estimated at about 100 years old. She's been post productive of the entire time of our study and probably for 20 years before that.

The owner of the Miami Seaquarium has no intention of letting Lolita go. Ken Balcomb has already worked out exactly how and where it should happen. Right nearby to where this pod of Orcas are feeding.

KEN BALCOMB: I hope to see exactly this, Lolita's relatives swimming by back and forth in front of the cove that we have Lolita, and I'm sure they will vocalise and be in communication. She would be here no more than about a month-and-a-half and then the gate would be open and just start exercising, just up and down the left side of the island, through all the salmon and then eventually be free to come in to a bay or a feeding station if she wanted to. But if she would rather, she can just keep swimming outside.

Although Ken's plans for Lolita's release and family reunion may appear little more than a flight of fancy, there is already a very real team of lawyers, committed to make this fairy day come true.

JENNY JAMES, ANIMAL LEGAL DEFENCE FUND: I would actually hope that for Lolita that we should have answers this coming year - at least answers that will be appealed by one side or the other but the case that the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed on Lolita's behalf first started in 2011 so at least we're down that path a little bit.

Lawyers trying to have the conditions under which Lolita is kept declared illegal and argue that with a tangible family connection to her pod, her immediate return to the Puget Sound is essential..

KEN BALCOMB: Lolita's new home.

Ken and Howard have taken me to the place they've chosen for Lolita's temporary sea pen.

HOWARD GARRETT: Orcas have very, very large brains, about 4 and-and-a-half times the size of human brains which is a lot of associational cortex, a lot of storage area, a lot of hard drive, so she's able to draw from those recollections and remember just the feel, the familiarity of this place, and I think it will come back to her.

In the sanctuary of the cove, it's hoped that the Lolita will quickly reacquaint herself with the rhythms and sounds of the ocean. With her relatives swimming outside, a family reunion would be just a matter of time. While she's in captivity, Lolita makes a fortune for her owners. For the rest of us, the symbolism of her release would be priceless.

HOWARD GARRETT: We live by the stories that we make and that we tell and this story is about re uniting nature, and re assembling the nature that we have ripped apart and allowing it to flourish without our domination and our control and our exploitation. It's going to be a beautiful thing to see for people to enjoy and feel a part of.

MARK DAVIS: Good luck to Lolita. I hope she makes it to that cove. We offer both Sea World and Seaquarium the opportunity to respond to that story, but they declined. Our website has more video from Nick about a campaign to free other whales from captivity. Of course, you can give us your views about the capture and training of these animals for public performance. All of tonight's stories can be seen and debates on the website.





Original Music Composed by


Additional footage courtesy of Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 'Blackfish'

12th November 2013