This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the Penn Cove orca captures, the controversial and deadly whale hunt off the coast of Washington state where Lolita the killer whale was captured to become the trained performer she is today at the Miami Seaquarium.
In the summer of 1970, about 80 whales were rounded up and seven ultimately captured and taken from their families. Five orcas drowned during the event, and those that were killed were intentionally sunk to the bottom of the ocean as part of a cover-up when determining exactly how many whale fatalities there were. The southern resident killer whales were the target of the hunt, and Lolita was taken from her "L Pod" family at a very young age. Lolita was caught and taken on August 8, 1970. Corky the killer whale, who is currently held at SeaWorld in San Diego, is the only whale who has been in captivity longer than Lolita — by one year.
Lolita's pod has since been declared endangered, and recently Lolita herself was declared as an endangered species since she's an original part of the pod.
Whale hunting in these waters off Washington state for the purpose of bringing the animals to marine parks for entertainment was mostly active between 1965 and 1973. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), at least 13 of Lolita's family members were killed during this timespan.
The orcas were caught when boats circled around the pods with nets in an attempt to draw the target whales away from their families into shallow waters for easy capture. The five orcas that died were caught up in the nets and drowned.
According to John Crowe, who was interviewed in Killer Whale People, a short film that documents the Penn Cove captures, he was put in charge of disposing of the dead whales secretly. The carcasses were sunk to avoid having them being counted in the total numbers of whales killed during the hunt.
To mark the anniversary of Lolita's capture, PETA is holding a rally at the Seaquarium on Sunday to show parkgoers and remind the park that Lolita is not only being held while declared an endangered species but also of the trauma she suffered being taken from her family 45 years ago.
Protesters will gather outside the park's entrance and will call on the Seaquarium to set Lolita free.
"These decades of captivity and isolation from others of her kind must end for this lonely orca," PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman says. "PETA is calling on people to shun the Miami Seaquarium in order to compel this business to send Lolita into coastal sanctuary retirement, allowing her to swim and communicate with the family members who are waiting for her in her ocean home."
Last month, PETA filed one of several lawsuits against the marine park, calling on Lolita's freedom. Like the other lawsuits before it, this suit claims that keeping Lolita in her small tank constitutes a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
In 2011, a similar lawsuit claimed the park violated the ESA against Lolita. That suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court a year later. In 2012, another lawsuit claimed the park violated the Animal Welfare Act by allowing trainers to ride Lolita during performances and was also eventually dismissed. It was appealed, but in 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal.
But PETA and the other animal rights groups involved in the lawsuits insist they have a case, claiming that not only is Lolita officially an endangered species but that she is forced to live in a confined space that offers little protection or shade from the sun.
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The groups have called on Seaquarium to allow Lolita to return to her pod, which some believe still has the orca's mother, who would be in her 80s.
For their part, the Seaquarium has insisted that Lolita has been well taken care of and is thriving under the park's care. In a statement released in July, the marine park said releasing her back into the wild would prove too dangerous.
”Lolita is loved and exceptionally well cared for at Miami Seaquarium, and we believe that her removal from the only home she has ever known, into a sea pen in Washington state (the end-goal of the activists), would be cruel and traumatic," the statement reads.
The rally is scheduled to begin for noon Sunday outside the park's entrance, located at 4400 Rickenbacker Cwy. in Key Biscayne.