She was four years old when she was abducted. Surrounded by family and oblivious to the men approaching in speedboats, the young orca swam peacefully off Whidbey Island on August 8, 1970. By the time she heard the boats’ engines, though, it was too late. She and dozens of other members of her pod had been herded into Penn Cove, where the youngest were hauled out of the water with nets and prepped for shipment to marine parks around the world. Within six weeks Lolita (as her new owners named her) was swimming in a concrete pool at the Miami Seaquarium, where she’s lived ever since. But now, almost 45 years later, she may be on her way home.
“It’s exhilarating to be this close to a positive outcome,” Howard Garrett says, failing to suppress a swell of emotion that makes his voice rise ever so slightly. “But I don’t want my hopes to get ahead of reality too much.” From his home on Whidbey Island, Garrett has tried for 20 years to free Lolita. And while dozens of killer whales dutifully splash crowds every day at SeaWorld and other parks across the country, Garrett has worked so tirelessly on her behalf because she’s unique among them: Lolita is the only remaining captive member of a distinct population of orcas—the Southern Residents—that spend part of their year in Washington and British Columbia’s inland waterways. So dedicated to freeing her is he that at one point, after his letters to the Seaquarium went unanswered, he moved to Miami for two years to lead an ultimately unsuccessful PR ground assault. And then, after a flurry of media attention in the ’90s that included a one-hour documentary on KOMO-TV, Lolita was all but forgotten.
It’s not that no one cared. But there wasn’t much to be done: Garrett had no legal recourse, and the park’s owners had no intention of giving up their cash cow. So with public interest fading, Garrett says, Lolita’s plight “dwindled in the doldrums. How much can you say without a news story?”
As it turns out, Garrett, his nonprofit Orca Network, and everyone else who hopes to free Lolita have had a lot to say since early 2010. That’s when a six-ton orca named Tilikum attacked and drowned SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and sparked a new debate about the wisdom of using killer whales for entertainment. A subsequent book, Death at SeaWorld, and the 2013 documentary Blackfish—both of which focus on Brancheau’s death—took the issue mainstream and helped recruit new troops in Garrett’s fight for Lolita. One of them, Michigan-based activist Robin Jewell Roberts, is planning a rally across the street from the Miami Seaquarium on January 17. As of mid-November a thousand people had pledged to join, but Roberts is hoping for 3,000: “We are going to rock Miami.”
The real break came in early 2013, though, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed to consider Garrett and PETA’s petition to recognize Lolita as a member of an endangered species. Since 2005 the Southern Residents—of which only 78 remain—have been protected under the Endangered Species Act. Except, that is, Lolita. She was excluded based on her captive status, but that’s what Garrett hoped to change. Before opening the case to public comment last March, NOAA agreed in principle with granting Lolita endangered status, and its final ruling is expected January 24.
Endangered status alone won’t automatically send Lolita back to the Northwest—if NOAA doesn’t compel the Seaquarium to release her, PETA could sue to have her freed—but it would be the biggest victory in Howard Garrett’s 20-year fight. Finally, he says, “I see a path.” And now he’s got a few more people in his corner: The average NOAA petition receives public comments in the hundreds. Lolita’s, on the other hand, received more than 17,000.