“A day in the life of Lolita” sheds light on the orca’s plight

The troubling saga of Lolita, the southern resident orca whale in captivity and on display in a Florida marine amusement park, will be in the spotlight at the 2014 Big Apple Film Festival in New York City.

“A Day in the Life of Lolita,” is an eight-minute film that follows renowned marine biologist, Dr. Ingrid Visser, into Miami’s Seaquarium, Lolita’s home for the last 44 years.

“The film is about elevating our understanding of the Orcas, who are deserving of our respect,” Whidbey Island-based Orca Network co-founder Howard Garett said. “And correcting this injustice.”

Director Daniel Azarian paints a compelling picture of Lolita’s situation. Her holding tank, 80-by-35 feet, is described by Visser as “tragically small.” The filmmaker claims the tank’s compressed dimensions violate the Animal Welfare Act, and according to Visser, cause Lolita to demonstrate “stereotypic behaviors” that are both abnormal and repetitive, and actions not seen of an animal in its natural habitat. Such behaviors include chewing on concrete, resurfacing at the same spot, and pacing back and forth.

Captured when she was somewhere between 3-5 years old, Lolita still makes the calls in Miami that she learned 44 years ago in her native sea. A highly sociable creature by birth, she has been alone in her tank since 1980, when her tank mate, Hugo, died from perpetually bashing his head against the side of the tank that he and Lolita shared.

The Friday Harbor Film Festival the “Life of Lolita” as its own separate event, as it’s too late to enter a film in the festival, which is only a few weeks away.

“This is an important film and we want to showcase it in Friday Harbor,” said Film Festival Director Lynn Danaher.

In April 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accepted a petition to consider whether Lolita, a member of L-pod, should be included under the Endangered Species Act listing of the Southern Resident killer whales. NOAA is expected to make its final decision sometime near the end of January.

“I think it’s a pretty sure thing that she will come under federal protection,” Orca Network’s Garrett said. “Then we will have someone to communicate with.”

As it stands, Lolita is private property and as such, belongs to Miami Seaquarium.

NOAA has received thousands of public comments about the petition and the plight of Lolita, the last Southern resident orca living in captivity. Comments range from support for including Lolita in the ESA, to others that contend including her (which could aid in her return to the Salish Sea) could be harmful to her health, and that of the other residents.

If Lolita is deemed part of the Southern Resident endangered orcas it could lead to a federally mandated relocation to her native waters, but it could also take additional time to get underway if the decision is contested in court by Seaquarium.

“We have to be patient,” Garrett said. “We started this campaign in 1995, there’s some real prospect that she might come home soon.”

According to Garrett, if approved, transporting Lolita back to the Salish Sea would be a relatively simple endeavor. A protected cove in the San Juan Islands has been chosen, an area in which Lolita would have much more room to roam, the stimulation of tidal action and foraging the sea bottom, and hunting fish. The area would be netted off and a slide-out area on the shore would allow her to be examined periodically by biologists and whale researchers.

Garrett said Lolita would need time to re-acclimate to living in the wild, and that a contingency plan for her perpetual care would need to be developed and in place as well.